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.