Sometimes a movie star drifts away so quietly, you don’t even notice. From the $800 million-plus-grossing Independence Day in 1996 through the $600 million-plus-grossing Hancock a dozen years later, Will Smith was one of the biggest — if not the biggest — movie stars on the planet, deploying his off-the-charts charisma and unflappable cool in such monster hits as Hitch, I Am Legend, I, Robot, and the Bad Boys and Men in Black movies. And then, he just sorta… stopped. His 2008 drama Seven Pounds was an uncharacteristic underperformer, Men in Black III (which followed a four-year absence from the screen) made boatloads of money and almost no impression, and After Earth — in which he played second fiddle to his son Jaden — was a notorious flop domestically (though it did just fine overseas). And thus Will Smith, once a brand name, finds himself with something to prove. Luckily, his latest movie Focus proves it — reminding us why he became a star in the first place, and providing a glimpse of where he might go from here.
Smith plays Nicky, a fabulously talented confidence artist. In the film’s opening scenes, he meets Jess (The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie), a clumsy neophyte who wants him to teach her the ropes. He takes her with him to New Orleans, to fleece tourists during Super Bowl week; she learns fast, and they fall into bed and into something that might be love. But at the end of the week, he disengages, and doesn’t see her again — until three years later, when they unexpectedly intersect in Buenos Aires, where the targets are up for grabs.
So Focus is a con-man movie, a subgenre that is, full disclosure, catnip for this viewer. The screenplay by Crazy Stupid Love’s Glenn Ficarra and John Requa is loaded, particularly up top, with my favorite element of these pictures: the voyeuristic charge of seeing how these criminal operations work. It’s all knowing explainers and stolen-property beauty shots and razor-sharp wallet lifts and colorful lingo like “the Toledo Panic Button” and “the little blind mouse.” And it’s also full of double-backs and narrative reversals, reset-button moments where you discover that our man’s actually working another angle, or this guy’s actually in on it, or the whole situation was a set-up.
Psych-out moments like those tend to annoy viewers who don’t share my unrepentant fandom of con pictures; if you’re one of those people, consider yourself duly warned. But they’re part of the fabric, as integral to the formula as the Meet Cute in a rom-com or the false defeat before victory in a superhero flick, and Ficarra and Requa occasionally turn our expectations upside down, letting us think we’re ahead of the movie and then going in a different direction altogether.
And those beats are the reason actors love to do movies like this: because playing a con artist is a seven-level chess game, an opportunity for an actor to play an actor. When Smith’s Nicky makes a confession, lays out a plan, or offers up an explanation, we squint a little and lean in closer, because the character is a liar, so how much is he actually telling us? And how is Smith choosing to convey how much Nicky is choosing to convey?
And this is why Smith is such a good choice; because in a con movie, where the entire narrative is constantly up for grabs, the most important consideration is not whether an audience buys the full package, but whether they’re with it on a moment-to-moment basis. And in each of those moments, Smith never wavers; even in scenes that we later discover are set-ups, he puts across the character’s emotional struggle, inner turmoil, and hair-trigger decision-making beautifully. Thanks to his endless charisma and inherent believability, you not only accept him as a confidence artist, but as a leader of confidence artists.
But that’s not all there is to this performance, which plays in spots (and in the best possible way) like a Smith demo reel. He gets to play sexy in the early scenes with the scorching Robbie, and their chemistry is off the charts; later, he becomes the sensitive romantic (for a bit too much of the second act, truth be told). He gets a couple of well-placed comic bits, particularly a fake-drunk sequence that reminds us of what a potent funnyman he can be. But more than anything, Focus lets Smith play cool — he thinks fast but talks smooth, and luxuriates in the picture’s laid-back vibe. I mean, his nickname is “Nicky Mellow,” for God’s sake.
So if Focus is, in fact, your Will Smith demo reel, here’s hoping it works. After all, it’s a star vehicle and a crowd-pleaser, but it’s also a movie for grown-ups (R rating and all), and — Suicide Squad notwithstanding — apparently the kind of movie he’s interested in making these days instead of Independence Day sequels. For my money, that’s very good news indeed.
Focus is out tomorrow.