Release: Friday, February 27, 2015
Written by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
The scent of expensive colognes and perfumes robbing the theater of breathable air undoubtedly seduced me into thinking the new Will Smith movie was better than it really is.
To focus on the negatives in a film that is this much fun is to largely ignore the art of the con, though. As Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon explains nonchalantly, deceit is created by drawing attention away from the action and centering it around something that, at the time, seems significant. That sentiment so easily can backfire in a film that plays it so casually like this one does; in a film that twists and turns until the very last minute, leaving the less hypnotized to question whether the directing tandem actually have an answer to it all or if they’re just making this up on the spot.
Again, logic matters less when compared to sheer entertainment value. The Fresh Prince seems refreshed playing a middle-aged male model alongside the rapidly rising young Margot Robbie, herself representative of Australian beauty. With a pair like this front-and-center, can I please be forgiven for temporarily writing this off as a 90-minute advertisement for Glamour or Vanity Fair? Magazines are indeed falling to the wayside in an industry hell-bent on revolutionizing itself, so why shouldn’t they try their hand in repackaging themselves in celluloid form? This is a great-looking cast enveloped by exotic locations and expensive, even if not believably costly situations. Toss in the audience-supplied bottle of Chanel No. 5, and voila.
Focus comes down to a complicated con between a world-weary pro and his apparent understudy, a pair who have up until the film’s final third been playing chess with one another’s wit and checkmating when it comes to unforced sexual tension. They meet in a night club where Jess (Margot Robbie) attempts to pull one over on Nicky, but is spurned by his advanced skill set. From there it’s a matter of one-upmanship between the pair as they fall into an ambiguous (er, or is that underdeveloped?) romance. Not that the feeling of mutual attraction is to be doubted but the intent behind the attraction sort of is. However, nothing is as apparent as Nicky’s love for the assorted fruits of the rich life, as evidenced in an exceptionally exciting sequence during the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The scene functions to expose Nicky’s true character: he has a major problem with saying no to exceeding what’s already excessive. It’s microcosmic of the trickery that lays ahead of us.
Will Smith hasn’t played a character this engaging since the days when he proudly sat upon a crashed alien craft and, chiefing on a Cuban, greeted its extraterrestrial operator with that famous smile of his and a sarcastic “welcome to Earth.” Nicky Spurgeon is often a lunatic but a calculating lunatic and his ‘partner’ in crime, while perhaps not evenly-matched in terms of recklessness, certainly is with her steely-eyed intensity. And I might be biased, but she’s also better-looking. Robbie is sweet on the outside but internally there burns a desire to settle an unwritten score, to take whatever it is that Nicky has and make it her own.
Scams range from casual pickpocketing to betting millions on the jersey number assigned to a random player on the sidelines during the aforementioned big football game, to tricking an Australian racing club owner into purchasing a bogus piece of equipment for three million Euro in order to allow another team, owned by the shady Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the win. But when you think you’ve figured it all out, the script — and this really would have been easier to predict if I was focused on said plot and not on Jess’ revealing wardrobe — flips the dynamic between the two grifters, leaving us to wonder if there is to be an actual winner and a loser and whether it’s just going to be money lost in the exchange.
There is also a final reveal that comes close to burning Focus‘s reputation for being a non-stop joy ride. It’s one twist too many, one cliché too many and one development that’s nowhere near as delusory as the directors would have us believe given the convoluted network of scams and heists we patiently have sat through. Regardless of the risk involved in the long con, it’s not enough to dissolve the chemistry between Smith and Robbie. The two work from a pretty hastily-written screenplay and yet bubble over with charm and a natural ease with one another. Plus it’s just a lot of fun to see them screw over people deserving of it.
Focus isn’t a film to think about, unless of course your goal is to make your brain hurt from failed attempts at rationalizing plot holes that render the story as swiss cheese. It’ll make you think, but don’t con yourself. It’s a fun getaway but not much more. Not that it needed to be.
Recommendation: With more twists than a Coney Island roller coaster, this glamorous little romp starts to lose focus (or effectiveness, either way you want to look at it) over time but the performances and high spirit are too great to bring the ride to a grinding halt. A perfectly acceptable Saturday night diversion for anyone looking to see Will Smith back to form and Margot Robbie for another solid lead performance. Theatrical attendance not required, unless you just want to choke on perfume.
Running Time: 105 mins.
Quoted: “Where are the black people?!”
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