Will Smith gets his mojo back in a glossy and seductive comedy with brains.
BY RYAN MILOWICKI
You might not guess from my penchant for terrible comedies, but I do rather enjoy movies that make me think. There’s something unique to the medium of film which allows a story to veil important details while setting the table for climactic and game-changing revelations. Too many films use this concept to slink into “Gotcha” territory, but every now and then you’ll see a film that carefully builds its world and subtly drops its hints along the way, justifying the buildup and leaving the audience thinking long after the credits roll. Despite their obvious flaws, movies like Now You See Me and Danny Boyle’s Trance were extremely entertaining to me for that very ability to keep me on my toes while still enjoying the ride.
“This is a game of focus,” Will Smith’s character Nicky says early on in the aptly-named Focus. Since he’s describing the intricate choreography of expert pickpocketing, I took him at his word and settled in for what I imagined to be a predictable yet fun 100 minutes of banter between Smith and Margot Robbie. But by the film’s second act, I began to realize that the con was ever so seductively being played on myself and the rest of the audience too. Focus goes above and beyond what it needed to be, giving us a surprisingly intricate mindbender while still soaring with the charm that’s been lacking in so many of Will Smith’s recent films. The end product is a stylish and pulpy jaunt that glides through seamlessly with a winning combination of never taking itself too seriously and firm confidence in front of and behind the camera.
As mentioned before, Focus examines the labyrinthine relationship between a veteran con man (Smith) and his deceptively skillful ingenue (Robbie). Split into two acts set three years apart, the film feels like a series of vignettes (in a good way), each of which contain their own payoffs while setting the stage for a cryptic finale. I spent the majority of the first half hour anxiously triple-checking my pockets to make sure my wallet was still there, so suffice it to say that the movie’s depiction of manual theft was tantalizingly effective. As the stakes increase steadily throughout the course of the story, so too does the skill of the protagonists, dragging us further down the rabbit hole and tempting us to forget to think along the way. But viewing Focus with a cautious and vigilant eye will reward you in the end, making so many of the interesting directorial and plot choices along the way make more and more sense. It’s the rare movie that gives you an equally enjoyable experience whether you think it through full bore or if you shut off your brain and let the story develop.
One of the reasons this works so well is the chemistry of the two leads. Despite their sizable age difference, Smith and Robbie play off each other quite well while each setting up their own cons. Focus is not high cinema, nor does it intend to be. Thus, what makes it such an easygoing experience is that the actors never take themselves too seriously along the way. In treating it as a comedy first and foremost, the witty banter between Smith and Robbie keep the film from ever slipping into monotony. Because of how much fun you can tell they’re having, I’m more than willing to forgive a movie with a fairly weak antagonist in favor of developing their relationship to the fullest. It’s good to see Will Smith in a role like this again, because it’s been a few years since we’ve seen him truly in his element. Focus won’t be enough to make moviegoers forget the disaster that was After Earth, but it certainly is a more-than-adequate first step in the right direction.
It also doesn’t hurt that Focus is an objectively beautiful movie. Full of vivid color, detailed and lavish setpieces, and expressive camera work, the visual eye candy perfectly complements the seductively decadent behavior of our protagonists. The world of high-stakes crime hasn’t looked this pretty since Ocean’s Eleven, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who also co-directed 2011’s Crazy, Stupid Love) make several interesting choices along the way which keep everything from feeling formulaic.
As I said, Focus is far from a perfect movie, and no one should go into it expecting to have their lives changed by the heartrending struggles of its characters. But this is a movie that basks in its imperfections, daring itself to straddle the line between thrilling and campy, and toeing it with a sleek grace. It’s great to see Will Smith back in his element, and this is a film which gives him full reign to show us all the reasons why we fell in love with him in the first place. Throw him into a world with dazzling bursts of color, give him a screenplay with enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing, and you’ve got yourself a darn good way to spend a wintry February evening. For what it is and intends to be, Focus is nothing short of a success. I can’t wait to see Smith and Margot Robbie team up again in Suicide Squad.
RYAN’s RATING: 3 Stars out of 4