There’s a strangely impersonal quality to Will Smith’s big screen work that makes his characters difficult to empathize with. It’s the same way that actors like Tom Cruise & John Travolta never disappear on the screen, but rather remain themselves in a new costume. Sometimes, this effect works okay for “Big Willie Style” Smith, like in his 90s heyday of Men in Black & Independence Day, where being a Big Movie Star was perfectly fine for the task at hand, but it’s failed to translate to more human roles like in The Pursuit of Happyness & Hancock, where it’s difficult to buy him as a real-life, down on his luck dude (with superpowers or not). It’s somewhat telling that most of the emotionally resonant work the actor’s put on film was on the Fresh Prince of Bell Air sitcom.
The film Focus is smart to acknowledge Smith’s detached, “Slick Willie” façade & put his false exterior to good use. Casting Will Smith as a smooth-talking con man is such a brilliant, blatantly obvious move that I honestly can’t believe no one’s ever done it before. Splitting most of its time between filming beautiful people robbing marks & rubes in New Orleans & then doing more of the same in Buenos Aires, Focus is hardly an example of exceptional filmmaking, but rather a collection of genuinely fun slight-of-hand tricks meant to fool the audience into a comfortably entertained sense of calm only to occasionally pull the rug from under them in a smooth, but violent motion. Detailing the budding romance between a con man and a pickpocket, Focus is centered on two characters the audience can never fully trust enough to be invested in, but its individual shell games & parlor tricks are really what the movie’s selling and it’s really fun to play mark for its trickery (especially during a Superbowl sequence that’s so intricately goofy & deceitful that it alone makes you want to watch this breezily entertaining film a second time).
I shouldn’t have been too surprised to learn after the fact that Focus was written & directed by the same folks behind the black comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris (which really does deserve so much more love than it gets), since both films rely so heavily on tricking a gullible audience rather than winning their hearts. Focus is much less devious than Phillip Morris, though, and instead of aiming for black humor at every beat, it mostly just looks nice and takes you on a fun ride. This is far from the worst goal a film can achieve, of course, especially since it also put The Fresh Prince to his best use in well over a decade.