By Matthew McKibben | February 28, 2015
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus doesn’t really have anything new or particularly interesting to say about the con man/heist genre. It’s not the kind of movie that’s going to redefine either genre or be talked about years from now, but it is a well made movie that hits the “fun” mark more often than not. This may sound like faint praise, but Focus could have been completely predictable and really boring, instead it is completely predictable and not boring — and when you’ve seen enough bad heist movies, that distinction is huge. The fact that Focus is watchable and kind of fun is due largely to Will Smith’s always present star power and to Margot Robbie proving that her star-making turn in The Wolf of Wall Street was no fluke.
Smith (Six Degrees of Separation and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) stars as Nicky, a third generation con man who never loses — having the protagonist never lose is a staple of modern movies. It’s all well and good to have an all-knowing, always a step ahead protagonist, but I prefer my leading players to be a little more grizzled and seemingly a step behind the curve. A con man who always wins is a God. A con man who loses occasionally is someone we relate to — Paul Newman and George Clooney built large chunks of their career around playing this kind of part.
Nicky leads a well-oiled team, or “crew” as they’re always called in these movies, yet he’s more of a loner than a Danny Ocean type who likes to pal around with his crew. He organizes the heist, assembles his team (over e-mail? phone? snapchat? they never really say), keeps a watchful eye over the heist, and then vanishes like the wallet that was in your pocket once the job is done. For the small heists (pickpocketing, watch-lifting), he puts the players into the right location and observes from above, like an NFL owner watching his team from the comforts of his press box. He rarely gets his hands dirty with the on the ground maneuvering, though he demonstrates early on that he can practically undress you to your skivvies without you knowing it, so long as you’re focusing on something else. Nicky much prefers the big heists where he’s personally conning millionaires out of their riches. He barely has time for friends, let alone any romantic interests. Enter Margot Robbie’s Jess, the radiant newcomer who wants in on the team and is out to prove that she belongs. As soon as you see them together you know that it’s only a matter of time until the two end up shirtless in bed together. (Be warned: This is also the kind of movie that has a saxophone soundtrack while the two are doing the nasty. The movie’s R rated, yet the sex is not.)
Smith is one of the world’s greatest movie stars, yet because of the failures of After Earth and Men in Black 3, it feels like it’s been forever since his last big hit. His stardom doesn’t shine as brightly in Focus as it did during his Bad Boys and Independence Day glory days, yet he’s still charismatic and talented enough to keep this movie from being 100% pedestrian and average. Few can drop a sarcastic line of dialogue better than Smith. Robbie and Smith have an easy-going chemistry with one another and their scenes together are the best in the entire movie. Great chemistry can’t really be purchased. It just is what it is; actors either have it or they don’t. Sure, it’s not quite as explosive as George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez’s chemistry in Out of Sight, but it’s palpable. They’re already filming David Ayer’s Suicide Squad together (Smith as Deadshot, Robbie as Harley Quinn), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see these two make more movies together down the road.
The best heist movies are ones that deftly mix the personal interaction stuff with the heists taking place on screen. Writers-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa pretty much nail the interpersonal stuff with Robbie and Smith, but the heist scenes range from being edge of your seat exciting to kind of boring and by the books. There’s a scene early on in the movie where Smith and his crew lift countless watches and wallets from people celebrating on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and it’s about as exciting as people “accidentally” bumping into each other can be. The scene works on a technical standpoint and I applaud the editing and cinematography showing how they lifted the countless wallets, yet the scene is largely there just to show off the skills of everyone involved. Because you don’t fully know these characters yet, you feel nothing watching them in action. Yet five minutes later, there’s a scene where Smith gambles with the money they had just won and you legitimately have no idea how he’s going to get out of the bad situation. It’s when the movie kind of plays with our expectations and let’s Smith individually (or as a duo with Robbie) carry a scene where the movie truly comes into clear focus.
Ficarra and Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Philip Morris) have an obvious talent for both visuals and storytelling. They’ve definitely been studying their Steven Soderbergh Oceans DVDs and are more than happy to show off all kinds of clever camera angles while classic soul music blares through the speakers. Although some scenes are predictable and by the book, there are few scenes in this movie that feel like a complete waste of time. The lean script doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is.
The rest of the cast is largely made up of a who’s who of “hey, it’s that guy from TV” kind of actors. BD Wong (Law & Order: SVU) has a scene stealing turn as a gambling enthusiast, and Brennan Brown (also a former Law and Order cast member) does decent work as Nicky’s right hand man, but it’s Gerald McRaney (Major Dad and Simon & Simon) who is given the most scenery to chew. I found his dialogue to range from being laughably bad to kind of over the top and hilarious in a cool kind of way. I’m undecided on if getting Major Dad to play his character with a “get off my lawn” gruffness was a stroke of inspired brilliance or insanity. Adrian Martinez stars as Farhad, who serves as kind of the comic relief of the movie. He provided some decent laughs, yet I found most of his dialogue to be kind of ridiculous and unnecessary.
On the whole, while Focus didn’t really show me much that I haven’t already seen done better in other heist movies, but it is a well made movie that hits its marks more often than not. It isn’t Smith’s triumphant return to cinemas, but it’s certainly a good start for making amends for After Earth.