Most movie stars charm us by creating the illusion that we know them. Tom Cruise's appeal comes in large part from our identification with his intense, full-throttle performances; the Rock, his eyebrow always arched in a self-mocking way, lets us in on the joke that action movies are preposterous, and, therefore, we should have a little fun with them. Even a chameleon like Daniel Day-Lewis establishes a connection with us as The Ultimate Craftsman, shaping performances that seduce us with their sheer virtuosity.

So what about Will Smith? At one point our most charismatic big-screen presence—and now just our most unknowable—the 46-year-old actor has been a movie star for about 20 years. But watching him in his new romantic thriller, Focus, I was struck by the fact that although he remains a magnetic figure, there's something mysteriously absent about him. Focus has been hailed by some as a comeback vehicle, but it's sadly the same Smith we've seen in recent years. The once-likable kid has grown up into a man who's holding something back from us.

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It's weirdly perfect that this movie is about deception—subterfuge is how he got his start. After years as the Fresh Prince both on record and on television, he jumped into movies in 1993's Six Degrees of Separation by playing Paul, a bright young man whose entire life was a lie. Charming rich New Yorkers like Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland's well-to-do couple, Paul used his handsome, benign features and polite, ingratiating demeanor to disarm everyone he comes in contact with.

What made the performance so compelling was Smith himself. We knew he could make dopey jokes and silly rap songs, but this other Will Smith, comfortable alongside established dramatic actors, was a revelation. Paul was a man who wasn't what he seemed, played by a budding star who wanted to prove he wasn't just what we'd seen in him before. Soon, in Independence Day and the Bad Boys and Men in Black franchises, he turned up the likability until he was arguably the biggest star in the world. In hindsight, maybe there was something distant about those performances, too—endlessly charming, but also a bit disposable—but we (and he) were having such fun, it hardly mattered. He was Mr. Cool. He was cocky but playful. He was an A-lister who was also Our Buddy Will.

It is hard to pinpoint when this all changed, in part because, as a longtime Smith apologist, I've been defending some of his later choices for a while now. Anytime I say something complimentary online about 2007's I Am Legend, I'm assaulted with a wave of "You have got to be kidding" comments, but it remains one of his best dramatic performances, a fully invested turn as the last man in New York City that makes good use of his emotional remove. (If the character fully embraced his anguish, he couldn't survive.) As for critical disasters Hancock and Seven Pounds, well, I admired Smith's desire to keep pushing himself. Make fun of the latter film and its jellyfish all you want, but Smith's sincerity as a man who needs to atone for his past sins was, again, effective because of his mysteriousness. (Plus, the movie gave him a chance to play a romantic leading man for once: He and Rosario Dawson are lovely together.)

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But it was around this period when people started jumping off his bandwagon. There were whispers he was a Scientologist. (He's denied he's a member, merely saying that he and his family members are "students of world religion"; of course, that hasn't stopped observers from noting connections to Scientology in later Smith projects, like 2013's underwhelming After Earth.) Smith's children, particularly Jaden (so good in The Pursuit of Happyness), came across as ultra-confident, nonsense-spewing tykes in interviews. The free pass we gave Will seemed to be revoked. Men in Black 3 might have been a hit—it was good, too—but it didn't inspire much enthusiasm. (It's the sort of sequel everybody sees because they figure they should—not because folks are really clamoring for it.) And after After Earth, Smith appeared to have lost his way. It's funny how quickly these things can change: What once was viewed as smooth precision started to translate as impersonal, disconnected, almost strangely inert. (This was amplified by his oddly, presumably intentionally flat performance in After Earth, in which his character was named, uh, Cypher.)

His return in Focus is meant to reassert his movie-star bona fides. But I worry that the damage may be done: What once seemed like effortless charm now masks an inability to draw us closer. In the film, he plays Nicky, a professional grifter who takes a beautiful young woman named Jess (Margot Robbie) into his crew, and also his bed. And like in Six Degrees, he's meant to be a mystery: Why does his team nickname him Mellow? Does he really love Jess? Can we trust anything he says? It's a performance wrapped around the actor's basic inscrutability—that sense that, underneath the endless cool, there is nothing there. That mystery could be compelling, but in Focus it's merely frustrating.

It's not that Smith hasn't shown depth in his movies, but the glory of performances like those in Ali or Happyness was his ability to embody an idea or a persona. Focus allows Smith to convey grownup sexiness for a change. (There's a seduction scene in here that will remind people of a slightly similar one in Out of Sight, a movie that's clearly a reference point for Focus's sophisticated slickness.) But behind the twists and double-crosses here, there's only artifice, and Nicky seems right at home. The problem is, so does the guy playing him.


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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