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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Movie Review: Focus

The caper drama Focus has a lot going for it, but gets its pockets picked in a few key areas.

Review by Matt Cummings

It doesn't happen too often that an actor can get completely knocked down by one role, but for Will Smith that was After Earth. It was not only one of the worst films of 2013, but an embarrassing trainwreck that saw Smith lose nearly all of his credibility and charm. It's taken awhile to get that back, an Focus helps a lot, even though it suffers in a couple of key areas.

When a one-night stand between Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) and Jess (Margo Robbie) leads to trouble with Jess' husband, it looks like Nicky will have to pay big time to make the problem go away. What Jess doesn't know is that Nicky is a smooth operator and con himself, swindling money left and right including her rings, wallet, and sunglasses from her before she even realizes it. The two decide to join forces during a football championship game in New Orleans, pick-pocketing their way to a huge haul, with the help of Nicky's army of cons. But the relationship isn't meant to last, and soon Jess finds herself dumped and without options while Nicky ruminates of his decision to leave her. Fast forward three years, and the two meet again, this time while Nicky is pursuing the ultimate prize, a con so big he might be able to retire. But trouble isn't far behind either, and soon Nicky and Jess find themselves in a tightening noose as his con is exposed. Or do they?

Focus has a lot going for it. If the goal is make the audience wonder exactly what is real and what is conceived by Nicky's sharp mind, then consider it a winner. The cons are swift and multi-layered, as if the con is being conned itself. The deception is nearly unending, as each new twist provides more opportunities for Robbie and Smith to heat it up. Smith, for all that he's done to himself to cast doubt in the minds of audiences, returns to his classic form but with a better dressed, more mature attitude towards his craft. Robbie is sensational with Smith, a hot burn each time they're together. She could make fire jealous, which is why her securing Harley Quinn in Sinister Six will be such a delicious experience for us. But, when these two are apart - such as when Nicky is ruminating about missing Jess or she's with Nicky's other con minions - things really slow down. No, it's doesn't turn into a slow burn, I mean it...slows...down. The surprise of the film is Gerald McRaney, whose gruff precision honed in the 1980's with Simon & Simon, steals every scene he's in. He's still a force of nature, and thus in the casting department Ficarra and Requa have utterly succeeded. But, Focus does manage to succeed elsewhere, taking us on a fun rollercoaster mixed with liquor and women. It's like the Fast & Furious of cons, spinning into corners and thematically jumping multiple exploding cars while its hero pretends to look razzed but has every angle covered. Wait a minute: that's a con-caper too...

And still with all of that achievement, the script co-creators Glenn Ficarra and John Requa is not as smart or as endearing as they want us to believe. Not only is some of the direction a bit messy, but its story of crosses, double-crosses, and greying loyalties might make you a bit paranoid that the entire affair is a set up. When that doesn't happen, you feel somewhat cheated because the ending just...ends. The other problem here is that the story doesn't seem to have one; Focus is about chemistry, not a plot that makes sense or is constructed in any way to reflect one. This creates a lot of characters that really don't matter, with those that you do want to see developed not really given enough time to do so. All of that skirting does ultimately affect whether you care about whether Nicky and Jess get together, if their con will see them rich or dead, or whether any of it really matters to the overall story. That's a gamble I don't like playing.

Focus is a good ride that also misses in a couple of key areas. Will Smith and Margo Robbie electrify the screen, but neither is as good when alone or with other actors, while Gerald McRaney benefits from a few great lines. For top caper, you still have to take Ocean's Eleven or The Italian Job, but Focus makes a good case for rainy afternoon cable sitdown or matinee experiment.

Focus is Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence and has a runtime of 104 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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