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Friday, February 27, 2015

‘Focus’ In And Enjoy (Movie Review)

Focus: 4 out of 5

Nicky: Attention is like a spotlight and it is our job to dance in the darkness.

Focus is solid entertainment that puts its audience back into the world of con artists, as there have been many of its kind before.  It is an easy way to have people both root for the leads, while also feeling intrigued by the sort of shadowy world they live in, but generally remains exciting due to these sorts of characters masquerading in lavish settings.  First and foremost though, Will Smith is back!  Regardless of one thoughts on Smith, he is one of the most charismatic actors in the world and while his leading roles have been fewer and further in between as of late, Focus is a film that does a fine job of both showing how effective of a performer he can be and how he has evolved for the better as an actor over time.  While there are plenty of other aspects of this film one can focus on, it really is nice to say that Focus is sharp and good-looking film, with a very good leading performance from the always watchable Will Smith.


As far as the story goes, the thing about movies centered on con artists is you basically have to accept that you are being set up in some way.  It would not be a spoiler to say that there is some kind of twist in this movie, but writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are very aware of how adult audiences, which this film is intended for, must know that they are in for some kind of ride that wants to trick them in some way.  All of that is to say that I enjoyed the ride, as the story is clever enough to sustain itself, without allowing me figure all of it out, but not be bored when I figured some of it out either.  Will Smith plays a conman, Nicky, who is very good at what he does.  He takes a young protégé, Jess (Margot Robbie), under his wing and falls for her.  There is some shiftiness in how and when we find these characters meeting up with each other, but the important thing becomes whether or not either of these two can trust each other, as they deal with a current scam that one (or both) of them may be pulling on a rich mark, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

Leave it to Will Smith to find a way to involve himself in dramas that find new ways to tackle familiar subject matter.  One can look back at Seven Pounds or The Pursuit of Happyness (among the many varied films he has led to success in the past two decades) and see the clichés, but regardless of the quality of those films (I happen to like them both to varying degrees), they have things I have not seen before.  Focus is like that as well.  It has a lot of the standard tropes one would find in movies about deception, heists, and the art of the con, but it does a lot to allow you to have fun in this world anyway, with various twists and turns along the way to help the film stand out.  No, this is still not the most original film out there, but it is an R-rated, adult drama that keeps the characters upfront, with little regard as far as creating some sort of franchise or nodding to some original version of this story, which does not exist in this film’s case.  I like that.  I like that we have a new original film, utilizing some old school tricks and featuring a movie star (playing a regular guy) as its main draw.  There are some complexities to the plot, but it is simple stuff when you get right down to it.


A lot of the joy comes not only from Will Smith, but the chemistry between him and Margot Robbie.  These two work very well together.  There are other cast members having fun as well, including an entertaining Adrian Martinez, a grumpy Gerald McRaney, and a terrifically over-the-top BD Wong, but the film keeps Smith and Robbie’s relationship front and center and these two work.  Yes, Margot Robbie is much younger than Smith and fairly new to the big screen (though I found her to be terrific at holding her own against DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street), but it ends up mattering little, as far as I was concerned, because I liked watching these two play off each other.

Additionally, this film is gorgeous.  Will Smith uttered the phrase, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” in the indelible Bad Boys II, when questioned about his exquisite fashion choices, despite being a police detective.  Focus very much adherers to this logic, as there are only so many characters and they are not the deepest of individuals, but everyone looks great and the settings (New Orleans and Buenos Aires) are lovingly captured by cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet.  This aspect is best reflected in the way we watch the con artists work.  Lots of fast cuts and nifty scenes of pickpocketing abound, as Smith and Robbie go over the ins and outs of the game and have fun while doing it.  Really, it is not about how well fleshed out these people are (and to be honest, their characterizations deserve more credit), but how well utilized they are in terms of what the films wants us to see.


Focus is not a deep characters study, but it is about the characters and letting us have fun with them in this con artist environment.  The script is smart, sharp, and well thought out.  Ficarra and Requa (who made the wonderful, but underseen, I Love You Phillip Morris) treat the audience with a level of respect, as they understand how well we should know this kind of story, yet still have ways of keeping it engaging and surprising.  Much of that comes down to Smith, who is not the reason this whole thing holds together, but is in top form, as far as utilizing both his charisma and his abilities as a performer.  It is because of this that I am happy to see a return such a fine return of the Fresh Prince to the top and happily await what he has in store for us next.


Nicky: That’s what you get when you hire a conman.


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