Six Degrees of Will Smith
Released back in 1993 and starring Will Smith who at the time was still pulling in the audiences with "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air", "Six Degrees of Separation" is a wordy movie, heavy on dialogue whilst minimal in movement. Which is no surprise considering that its origins are in a stage play written by John Guare who also wrote the screen play for the movie and in doing so manages to keep that feel whilst broadening it to work on the big screen. "Six Degrees of Separation" is a clever, often mildly amusing and surprisingly riveting movie despite its slightly meandering journey from what appears to be the story into something a lot more analytical and self obsessed.
In New York, art dealers Flan (Donald Sutherland - JFK) and Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing - Grease) are about to have a business dinner with a rich South African friend, when an injured young black man arrives at their swanky apartment proclaiming to have been mugged whilst in Central Park. Introducing himself as Paul (Will Smith - Made in America), a friend of their children from Harvard and son of famous actor Sidney Poitier, he regales them with intellectual conversation and stories of his life whilst cooking them dinner in repayment for their kindness. As the evening draws to a close they invite Paul to stay the night only to discover during the night that Paul is not all that he seems to be. Intent on getting to the bottom of things they investigate this young man with some surprising results.
"Six Degrees of Separation" is a very clever movie and has you believing that it is one thing then turns into something else. The initial premise of this young man who gains the confidence of rich New York families by regaling them with intelligent conversation, tales of his up bring and famous patronage leads you to expect that this all about a confidence trickster who having won over the families will rob them. But it isn't and "Six Degrees of Separation" is certainly not that predictable or unoriginal. What it is, is a movie which builds layer upon layer of storyline, expanding on themes and locations whilst revealing a little more to draw you in and impelling you to get to the end to see how it all turns out for Paul, Flan & Ouisa.
But whilst clever in the way the storyline unravels and indeed with how it is presented, in a series of flashbacks as Flan & Ouisa regale their own friends with the story, there is one major flaw. That flaw is that it becomes too clever turning from an interesting story about this young man who cons his way into homes into something a lot more self indulgent and analytical as it looks at how the encounter between Paul and in particular Ouisa affects her. This is still very clever and although a little fanciful in it's visual production manages to work, but turns "Six Degrees of Separation" from having mass appeal into something which feels more arty and made for those rich clever folk who enjoy hearing Flan regale the tale.
With its self analytical approach "Six Degrees of Separation" is a very symbolic movie using a 2 sided Kadinski painting with its contrasting sides to symbolise the differences in the movie, such as that between Paul and the Kittredge's, as well as their own fake lives. It is again very clever but maybe a little too clever for a mass market who may expect something more commercial from a movie featuring Will Smith.
Whilst all this is obviously quite clever and often captivating there is another significant issue, "Six Degrees of Separation" wimps out in trying to deliver an ending. All that clever build up, storyline revelations and twists are lost because the ending feels unreal, contrived and rushed. Having never seen the play I have no idea how it should end, but this feels out of place with the rest of the movie as if they decided that they needed to wrap things up but had no idea how to do so in a satisfactory and believable manner.
In what could be considered his first leading role, although he does share the limelight, Will Smith offers a glimpse of what a great actor he would become. This is not wise cracking Will Smith or action hero Will Smith, but a more raw Will Smith who is not over shadowed by his illustrious co-stars and delivers the vast amount of dialogue in a resplendent manner. Alongside Will Smith is Donald Sutherland who is a delight to watch as Flan as he regales his high society friends with his tales and does so in such a brilliant manner. This is Donald Sutherland doing what he does so well, playing the rich man with a way with words.
But the real star of "Six Degrees of Separation" is Stockard Channing, who having already starred in the stage play brings her character of Ouisa to life on the big screen. It's a wonderful performance delivering the shallow fakery of her rich life, but with a caring more real inner self, there is confidence yet vulnerability in the character and Channing delivers it all so naturally. She even manages to make the ending a little more interesting despite it's feeling of being rushed.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "Six Degrees of Separation" may start out feeling like a commercial movie with it's apparent tale about a confidence trickster it turns into something different which honestly lacks a certain mainstream appeal. It is certainly clever and intriguing as it draws you into the storyline as it unravels, but then maybe it becomes a little too clever as it becomes all analytical and a little self indulgent. What this certainly isn't is a movie for Will Smith fans who enjoy his wise cracking, action hero persona as it is a much rawer, restrained performance which shows his dramatic capabilities rather than his comedic ones.