Will Smith plays an expert grifter in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s con-man rom-com Focus, but in some ways it seems as though he has always been playing a con artist. Smith has never been an actor of particular depth, but he is an expert button pusher, a maestro at selling himself and his films, and most of his characters reflect the self-confident bravado he projects to the public. And yet his overreliance on charm and tics and shallow tentpole blockbusters has only appeared to conceal the more interesting aspects of his personality and talent. He has become a beloved figure without ever really letting us in.
Apparently, the act has worn thin. Smith had a string of holiday weekend hits in the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as a couple of thank-you-for-playing Oscar nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, but his last five films have been a steady march towards irrelevance: Hancock, Seven Pounds, Men in Black 3, After Earth (where he plays a character named Cypher Raige; I mention this only because it’s hilarious), and Winter’s Tale. If that’s not bad enough, there has been serious talk of a Bad Boys 3. After all of that dreck, a little adult sophistication looks pretty good on Smith. Focus lets Smith rehab his image by playing the familiar part of the smooth-talking, streetwise charmer, but the con game genre also offers him an opportunity to investigate and penetrate the facade of celebrity.
Unfortunately, Ficarra and Requa are all about facades, and Focus is a film that exists entirely on its enticing surfaces. In the moment, it’s an entertaining enough hustle, but scratch the paint and a lot of formulaic chintz starts to show. All of the cinematic “glamour”—the lounge-pop soundtrack and the subdued sky bar lighting and the Out of Sight jump cuts—look as phony as a three-dollar bill, just osmosis of style from dozens of better films. For a while, it is fun letting the film seduce you, but the script is more crass than clever, and the line between deliberate misdirects and lousy writing has never been blurrier. The whole film unravels the second you step away.
Smith doesn’t get his transcendent film role here, but he still gives a solid star turn as Nicky, the latest in a long family line of legendary con artists. As the film opens, Nicky is leading a gang of small-time pickpockets who are preparing to descend upon the crowds at “the big game” in New Orleans. Focus did not get NFL licensing rights, so they were unable to use NFL mascots or logos or even the term Super Bowl, which leads to a lot of confusing branding—as far as I could tell, the Miami Rhinos were winning Bud Light Bowl XVII.
While drinking in a swanky New York hotel bar, Nicky is lured upstairs by the neophyte con artist Jess, played well by Margot Robbie (very quickly becoming Hollywood’s go-to blond Cool Girl, a good sport cast-able in roles slightly too skimpy and demeaning for a bigger name actress). Of course, the seasoned Nicky figures out her bunny-slope con game immediately, and although Jess is eager to learn the tricks of the trade, he brushes her off and leaves for New Orleans. She follows him, proves her pick-pocket skills enough to gain entry into his gang of thieves, and they begin a globe-hopping, who’s-playing-who whirlwind romance.
To go into further story detail would be cruel—we’re never fully invested in the Nicky-Jess relationship, so the sleight-of-hand plot twists are all the film has going for it. I’ll leave the implications of the third-act reveal to the less spoiler-averse critics, but suffice it to say that no one’s going to accuse this film of promoting a feminist agenda. Sloppy writing and halfhearted shock humor never help—the explanation of every impossibly intricate con job is met with retroactive incredulity when we realize that all previous behavior has been rendered nonsensical. When the film ends, don’t be surprised if you’re searching your pockets, feeling as though you’ve been conned.