Will Smith is one of the few remaining “movie stars” in the business.
He’s had a long, storied career as a box office draw equally capable of blockbuster action and affecting drama. Even the most bullet proof of stars have proven to be prone to wading their way through a crap fest or two. I mean, ask Tom Cruise. Big Willie had to shoulder the behemoth critical and commercial failure of his M. Night Shayamalan collaboration After Earth, and considering the lukewarm reception of Men In Black 3 and his cameo as The Devil (really) in last year’s campy disaster Winter’s Tale, many thought that it was time for Smith to throw in the blockbuster towel for good.
It’s kind of a relief that Focus is not only good enough to prove that Will’s still got leading man gas left in his tank and that Australian newcomer Margot Robbie can hold her own, but that a film whose main focus (*cough*) is misdirection can play its slights of hand, however nauseating they may become, in an effective way. A mix of Ocean’s Eleven and Matchstick Men with a little sprinkle of Hitch on top for good measure, Focus is a sleek adrenaline shot of a blockbuster that’ll keep you guessing, sometimes to my own chagrin.
Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is a successful con man who runs an increasingly elaborate racket across the country. Aspiring con artist Jess Barrett (Robbie) trails him to a hotel and asks him to teach her the tricks of the trade. They train during a big operation in New Orleans and fall in love, and in accordance with heist movie law, there’s no room for love in this business, so he breaks it off. Three years later in Buenos Aires, Jess’ reappearance throws Nicky out of focus (haha) while he’s attempting to con a race car driver.
The story is by no shakes original, but the machinations of writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who gave us the excellent I Love You, Phillip Morris, their flair for twists, and Smith and Robbie’s on-screen chemistry make up for quite a bit. Watching the cons take place and the dizzying lengths characters go to explain them is nothing short of intoxicating, and it’s all cleanly cut and pretty to look at.
Robbie’s breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street put her on the map as a fierce talent to watch who knows how to hold her own against self-destructing selfish men, but she takes it to a whole new level here. Smith and Robbie’s chemistry is even more charming than the fast/paced editing, even though the story is sometimes so infatuated with twists that it has to cut back on explanations that matter.
That’s where Focus’s main problem lies in its insistence on turning every single aspect of the story into some kind of twist; Jess’ progression in particular is robbed of its potential poignancy because of this. Her growth from novice to expert con artist is explained through a “three years later” jump cut and a passive “I trained a lot.” There’s also a throwaway detail about Nicky having a gambling problem that pays off in a clever way, even though it can’t help but feel self-congratulatory. But Robbie, Smith, and the rest of the cast are engaging enough as to distract from this fact. There’s a joke about Australians near the middle of act 2 that’s especially funny, considering the fact that Robbie herself is from Down Under.
It’s admirable that the film takes the theme of focus to its logical extreme by constantly keeping the audience on its toes, but twist after twist eventually leads to feeling like Ficarra and Requa are just showing off at the expense of the overall story, especially because it ends on an ambiguous and open-ended note that’s nothing short of ballsy.
The more interesting aspects of the story may be undercut by its own insistence on showing you how clever it’s capable of being, but Focus is still a fun thrill ride that serves as a comeback vehicle for Smith, an arrival for Robbie, and a well-executed dramedy thriller that’ll have you checking your pockets on the walk home from the theater, but not much longer than that.
-Dylan “CineMasai” Green