Directed by: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Premise: An experienced con man (Will Smith) working an elaborate job has his game thrown when he encounters a woman (Margot Robbie) from his past.
What Works: As an actor, Will Smith has been in something of an identity crisis. Throughout much of his career as a movie star he was primarily known for large scale blockbusters like Men in Black and Bad Boys in which he often played confident, cocky, and likable leading men. Smith attempted to expand his skill set, sometimes successfully with Hitch and The Pursuit of Happyness, but more often unsuccessfully with disappointments like After Earth and Seven Pounds and a return to familiar territory with Men in Black 3 proved unable to recapture what had worked so well for Smith a decade and a half earlier. Focus sees Will Smith beginning the post-superstar phase of his career and he is quite good in this film. The part calls on the charisma that he still exudes but it also requires a more sophisticated performance than he has given in a while. In this film, Smith plays an experienced con artist who is a master of his craft but his feelings for a woman complicate his current job. Like a lot of con-job movies, the success or failure of the film is predicated on the filmmakers keeping the characters’ real agenda vague as the audience tries to decipher what is authentic and what is a put-on. Smith proves able to play that ambiguity and he is matched by actress Margot Robbie. Robbie was previously seen in The Wolf of Wall Street in which her feminine charms offset Leonardo DiCaprio’s over the top rages. She has a similar role here but Robbie is given considerably more to work with. The role allows her to be intelligent and she proves a capacity for both drama and comedy. Focus works best when it is fun and it’s most successful at that in the first half. Smith and Robbie’s characters meet during Super Bowl weekend and he initiates her into the trade. The sequences of training and petty theft are cleverly done. Like a lot of good movies about crooks, the filmmakers play up the excitement of criminality—and especially the thrill of getting away with it—and Focus is most effective when it plays to that kind of delinquent fun.
What Doesn’t: After the Super Bowl segment of the picture, the narrative comes to its logical conclusion and the moviemakers don’t seem to know where to go with the story or what to do with their characters. There is an obvious play here: Robbie’s character should pursue Smith in an attempt to right his wrong by using the skills he has taught her. That’s the direction the movie is pointing. The filmmakers don’t go that way and instead send the characters on an unlikely new adventure that botches the basic appeals of a movie like this. A con-job story such as American Hustle or The Sting depends upon the filmmakers maintaining the credibility of the story and staying one step ahead of the audience. Viewers have to be engaged with the people on screen and invested in the drama and yet unsure of the characters’ agendas. If there is a master plan, it must suffer from unexpected complications but those glitches have to grow organically from the situation. The credibility of Focus is strained by an increasingly absurd series of situations that eat away at the integrity of the movie. Some of these incredulous moments are unlikely coincidences and others are reveals that come out of nowhere. This spoils the fun of the movie. Among the casualties in the second half of Focus is the rapport between Will Smith and Margot Robbie. The two are a great pair in the first half of the movie but the key to their relationship is the tenuous trust between them. After seeing their characters split up on sour terms it just isn’t credible that they would get back together and the filmmakers force their reunion.
Bottom Line: Focus is a mixed effort. Will Smith and Margot Robbie are a lot of fun to watch and the movie is never boring but the filmmakers botch a promising start with stupid plot twists and contrived character motivations.
Episode: #532 (March 8, 2015)