Has the Past 10 Years of Will Smith’s Career Been “Depression” or a Con? Does Focus Mean He is Back?


You might say that for the last few years, Will Smith hasn’t quite been himself.  From his resume of films the past decade, you might even wonder if he is depressed.  Spending so much time trying to help his children get their foot in the proverbial door of the entertainment world, Will has been choosing projects for himself that have been diminishing his image and the good will he built up methodically since rapping “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and reigning on his throne as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air back in the 1980’s and ‘90’s. This is not to say that he hasn’t given strong performances in these films from the past 10 years.  In fact, many of them are quite strong and frankly elevated the film far beyond what it would have been without him.  But as we look at each project, there is a strikingly familiar theme of depression running through them.

For proof, let’s look at his “depression” catalogue.  Shortly after Hitch, his last light hearted romp as a love consultant, he took on I am Legend where he was a depressed man who had lost his family and frankly everyone else in the world.  He starred in The Pursuit of Happyness where he was anything but. Next was the superhero film Hancock where he is an alcoholic and depressed superhero.  He followed that with Seven Pounds, another depression based drama with suicide as a central theme.  Trying to get back to a hit, he starred in Men in Black 3, but here his Agent J was having a crises trying to save his partner and was a more dramatic turn of depression than the light-hearted comedy capers the first two installments had been.  2013’s terrible After Earth might have been the height of his depression where he didn’t even crack a smile in the entire film.  Last year, he played the devil inWinter’s Tale.  After these 7 circles (films) of his Dante-inspired depression hell, is Will Smith ready to finally return to the roles that endeared him to so many?

In his latest film, Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky a smooth criminal who can talk anyone into anything.  He is one of the best con men around.  Leading a team of 30, they hit everything, and everyone, in town.  They travel from big event to big event following the crowds and as a result the paydays.  Superbowls, and major sporting events, are a natural attraction for his team’s talents.  This role allows for Smith to showcase his winsome persona of yesteryear, but also allows him to find some layers of depth as well.  Given his past decade of “depression” roles, I was skeptical of this one as well.  Nicky learned the tricks of the trade from his father and grandfather, both of whom are not in his life, with one having a wayward end.  Nicky drinks, and often blows his, and his team’s stolen winnings, on random bets at the track, or worse with individuals.  So we’re clearly bordering on the precipice of another depression role.

Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall StreetAbout Time) plays Jess, a small time thief who meets Nicky at a hotel bar one night.  When she realizes that he was wise to a scam she was trying to run on him, she asks that Nicky mentor her.  Nicky takes her on as his intern teaching her the tricks of the trade before she realizes that she has been the one who has been conned.  They meet several years later with bad blood between them, and the audience is unsure of what is just a con, and what is just real life, as they begin to interact. Robbie and Smith have decent chemistry, especially when they are at odds.

Directors Glenn Ficarra (Crazy Stupid Love, I Love you Phillip Morris) and John Requa (same films as Glenn) are able to keep Will Smith on the high wire walking that thin line between charming and winsome, and nuanced performance.  As a result, this film ends up being a lot of fun on the whole with a more current, less retro-vibe of Oceans 11 type of feel, while at the same time playing as a suspenseful drama.  It is also the first sure sign we have had of Will Smith shaking off his collective funk of the past 10 years, besides a funny cameo in Anchorman 2.

Focus does require just that, if you are trying to catch the secret of the con early on.  Where it does struggle is trying to balance the serious straight forward situations the characters find themselves in with the aesthetics and tone of the film as the directors try to decide whether it should be more loose like a comedy-drama, or tighter like a Michael Mann crime drama.  In the end, they get enough right to hold it all together so that the audience will walk away from the film having had a reasonably enjoyable time.  More importantly, they will walk away feeling that Will Smith might actually be on his way back, and that he has learned  how to balance the happy go-lucky persona of The Fresh Prince, with the serious and more layered characters he has been striving for.  I guess he is starting to Focus.