Focus has quite a few things going for it. The first is obvious. It’s a (potential) return to form for Will Smith. The plot, which centers around con-artists and the adventures that come from living a lifestyle of slick thievery, is dialed directly out for Smith, a welcome blast of a star-making vehicle that is, in this case, given to a former star in an effort to make him a star again. The second thing is the plot itself, which, as I’ve already stated, centers around con-artistry, a subject that Hollywood doesn’t often mess with. The Brothers Bloom and American Hustle come to mind (at least at the moment), but other than those, I can’t think of many con films that have the same tone of this movie. And, the final thing that makes it something to watch out for is the team behind it. Glen Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy Stupid Love, I Love You Phillip Morris) have proven themselves two filmmakers that work well together, a team that is capable of providing good, fun entertainment.
In Focus, written and directed by the duo, Smith plays Nicki Spurgeon, the con-man of all con-men, a truly seasoned and skilled artist that has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Out of nowhere, he is approached by Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), a novice in the line of con-artistry that tries her best to sneak anything, specifically wristwatches, from her hosts. In the event of a Hollywood production, these two characters would form an unlikely bond, traveling together and the more experienced of the two showing the more inexperienced a trick or two. This is a Hollywood production, so that is what we get. And believe it or not, Focus actually proves to be an immensely fun piece of cinema, throwing us an abundance of twists and turns that may not be entirely uncontrived, but in the moment serve to be laugh-inducing bursts of enjoyment.
Indeed, the best thing I can say about the film is that it is, as I had hoped, a return to form for Will Smith. After a recent drought of quality films and in their place a list that includes Men in Black III and After Earth, Smith is finally back. His last good movie was Hancock back in 2008, and although it was only PG-13, Focus is the R-rated Smith we’ve been waiting for. In the role, he is a knockout, entirely convincing as a con-man while also maintaining his typical humorous charm. In an early scene in an empty courtyard, he tries to show Jess just how good he is at sneaking items off of his hosts, and Smith delivers the goods in a fashion that impressed even me. Throughout the entirety of the film, we aren’t entirely sure what to make of his character; whether he is a good guy to root for or a troubling manipulator. But in a film about con-men, that’s probably for the best, and Smith does a great job at keeping us guessing.
Margot Robbie, best known for her work opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, also turns in a fine performance here as the novice that Nicki trains. The two fall for each other, but it’s never clear whether they are truly in love or if they are conning each other, and this is something that Robbie does so well. She’s convincing in the film, dialing in another strong performance (I loved her work in Scorsese’s film as well as About Time), but I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t have liked to see this role go to someone, um, older. But, for what it is, I have no complaints. She’s great, making every facial expression a form of comedy on its own, and she strikes sizzling chemistry with Smith. I can’t wait to see these two together again in Suicide Squad.
From start to finish, Focus looks sharp, a superbly directed piece with flashy cinematography by Xavier Pérez Grobet, and that is an anchor for the movie. Even in the film’s weaker moments when it falls back on standard Hollywood romance tales and the typical scene of our two heroes being tied up in some kind of abandoned warehouse, it never fails to look gorgeous, every shot looking crisp and sleek. Directors Ficarra and Requa direct with skill, their script sometimes going from hilarious (Adrian Martinez is hysterically funny as Farhad, an overweight accomplice of Nicki’s without any hint of a speech filter) to darkly funny to just straight up dark. Some individually scenes fluctuate between funny and dark, such as a stellar gambling sequence involving Smith and B.D. Wong’s character. But it always comes back to the comedy (these guys did write Bad Santa after all) and that is what drives the film. It has a good way of tricking us, sometimes making us think everything has been resolved, only to reveal yet another con being in the works. It isn’t particularly original, but it’s loads of February fun.
1 hr. 45 mins.
Rated R for for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, B.D. Wong, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez
Written and directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa