Focus May Signal the Career Downfall of Will Smith
The best part of my experience with Focus was going to get Dairy Queen before it started.
That is to say, there’s not that much to say about Focus itself. It’s a middling, corporate con-movie that suffers from a painfully self-confident script and reliance on the interplay between main Will Smith and sidekick/lover/protege Margot Robbie. It has no real antagonist—well, I mean, Rodrigo Santoro, kinda—and lurches from plot point to plot point as though it were a series of first-season TV episodes crammed into a movie.
Ultimately, there’s more wrong than right with the movie (real quick: the criminal psychologist from Law and Order: SVU engages in a Ken Jeong-style portrayal of a Chinese high roller; Gerald McRaney delivers what will go down in history as one of the most terribly pitched monologues ever; and a hugely important plot point takes place at the ugliest, fakest movie faux-Super Bowl ever—brought to you by Mercedes-Benz and Bud Light.)
The takeaway from Focus, though, isn’t just ‘don’t go see Focus.’ The takeaway is that, barring a massive showing in Suicide Squad, we’re about to step into the first chilly days of Will Smith’s career ice age. The Fresh Prince took a four-year vacation between Seven Pounds in 2008 and Men in Black 3 in 2012. 2013’s Will Smith effort was the crime-against-science-fiction After Earth, the wretched first chapter in what just might not be the Smith acting dynasty, assuming Jayden keeps talking to spirit crystals and Willow hangs on to her music career. Smith appeared in 2014’s Winter’s Tale, which I didn’t see, but am told was a total fart parade, and had a cameo in Anchorman 2, which broke my heart worse than my first breakup. The film gods have not been kind to Smith since I Am Legend, but they haven’t been particularly cruel, either. Men in Black 3, After Earth, and Focus—all of Smith’s vehicles since 2012—have made money against their budget. Hell, After Earth—which, and I cannot stress this enough, is the single worst blockbuster science fiction movie of the past 15 years—pulled in $244 million over $130 million.
Here’s the thing: from 1995 to 2008 —the unquestioned heyday of Will Smith’s career—even his bad movies were imminently watchable. Bad Boys and Bad Boys 2? Terrible, awful, amazing movies that will play in the background of frat parties for decades to come. Wild Wild West? Come on. Shitty flick, impossibly enjoyable, and kind of mathematically unsound. How can Kevin Kline + Will Smith + Kenneth Branagh x a 30-story-tall, plot-pushing, mechanical spider = bad movie? Somehow it does! And it’s so much fun! I suppose that The Legend of Bagger Vance qualifies as a total dud with no historical value, but it teed up Smith’s drama game and pushed us into Ali, I Robot, and The Pursuit of Happyness.
So we’ve gone from Smith’s movies being tremendous at best and enjoyably bad at worst, to Smith’s movies being bearable at best to being motion picture disasters at worst . He’s gone from being compelling to acceptable in a matter of years. And back we come to Focus: It is not a good movie, but it is not a disastrously terrible movie. It will not be a blemish on Will Smith’s career, but it won’t be a boon. It is a painfully standard effort in what should have been something of a gap year.
What is happening before our eyes is the De Niro-ing of Will Smith. De Niro’s umatched streak of super-hits and Oscar-worthy performances had to peter out at some point, and it has: while he does, every once in a while, crank out a Silver Linings Playbook, he’s busy making Grudge Match’s and Littler Fockers’s and Righteous Kill’s to make a little scratch and remain firmly in the zeitgeist. In the next two years, Smith only has one guaranteed hit coming out in 2016’s Suicide Squad—also starring box office sure-thing Jared Leto and Will-Smith-no-chemistry-sure-thing Margot Robbie. Until then, he’s got Concussion, which comes out at the end of 2015, about the result of repeated cranial trauma caused by football, co-starring Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks. And also, uh, Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell.
Definitely not a box office smash, definitely Oscar-bait, definitely relying very heavily on Will Smith being super compelling. My prediction as a totally-paid and oh-so-astute movie type is that this will be an unabashed dud, and will make Suicide Squad the most important film of Will Smith’s career. His do or die moment.
What was once the most meteoric career of all is being pulled out of orbit by the law of averages. Focus is undeniable proof.
Someone write the guy a new I, Robot. Or at least a new “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.”