Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Movie Review: Focus

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa.
Written by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa.
Starring: Will Smith (Nicky), Margot Robbie (Jess), Adrian Martinez (Farhad), Gerald McRaney (Owens), Rodrigo Santoro (Garriga), BD Wong (Liyuan), Brennan Brown (Horst), Robert Taylor (McEwen), Dotan Bonen (Gordon), Griff Furst (Gareth), Stephanie Honoré (Janice).

Focus is far more entertaining than it has any real right to be. The screenplay is more than a little bit of a mess – seemingly striving for a classic three act structure, without finding a way to fuse the acts together in a way that feels natural. As the film races towards it climax, it devolves into clichés of the genre – which we know it will from the outset (when a character explains a classic con in part one, you cannot fool the audience when that con surfaces in act three). Yet, the movie is never less than entertaining and engaging on a moment by moment basis, even if the film never really comes together.

The main reason why Focus works is that it has two excellent movie star performances at its core. The fact that Will Smith is so effortlessly charming isn’t a surprise – he’s one of the last of the true movie stars, who can deliver these types of performances that are not easy, and make it look effortless. It may have been a while since Smith delivered a performance like this – his last film was After Earth, which wasted his talents as a charmer in role that required him to be boring – but he hasn’t lost it. The slightly surprising part is just how good Margot Robbie is as his protégé and eventual love interest. Robbie was brilliant in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street of course, but here she is in full movie star mode, and she pulls it off so wonderfully, that it should make her a real one. The two have instant sexual chemistry – probably because they are the two best looking people in the movie be far – and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa crib from Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (okay, they outright steal from it, but if you’re going to steal, steal from the best) in the way they shoot the pair of them as the verbally spar, flirt and fall for each other, even if it isn’t a good idea.

The plot of the movie is a bit of a mess. Smith is Nicky, a veteran conman and Robbie is Jess, a rookie he meets when she tries (unsuccessfully) to run a scam on him. Instead, he ends up showing her a few tricks of the trade – and when, a few days later, she shows up in New Orleans before the Super Bowl, he takes her under his wing, and into his very large crew. Unlike most movie conmen, he isn’t after one big score – but a lot of little scores. That way, he can make a lot of money, and keep the risk low. At least that is what he says in act one. In act two, hell risk everything in a series of ridiculous bets with Liyuan (B.D. Wong) and in act three, set three years later, he’ll go after that one final score, trying to con a racing magnate (Rodirgo Santoro) who has hired Nicky to con his competitors – much to the chagrin of his security man (Gerald McCraney). These are the types of scams Nicky says in the first act to avoid – but hey, the movie really has nowhere to go after act one unless it goes bigger in the latter two acts.

Like I said, as a whole, I don’t think Focus really works. It doesn’t gain momentum as it goes along – it kind of repeatedly builds, climaxes, and starts again. And yet, the individual acts work fairly well as single acts – particularly the second one, set almost entirely in one luxury box at the Super Bowl, which slowly and gradually ups the ante to insane degrees. It works because of Smith, Robbie and Wong – all of whom play off of each other wonderfully. That act two works so well is a disappointment for act three, which is far too busy, has far too many people and rushes through its complicated plot. By this point, the movie has repeatedly tried to fool us – so we no longer trust it. We just keep waiting for the movie to pull the rag out from under us (again) and when it does, it’s hardly shocking.

And yet, I liked the movie more than I probably should have. I enjoyed watching Smith and Robbie and their sexual chemistry – even if I didn’t much care for the story. Some of the supporting characters add interest, and the movie is a lot more fun than most wide release February movies are. Smith and Robbie could be the romantic pair at the heart of a great film like this – Focus isn’t that film, but it will do.

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