by Philip Price
I faced something of a conundrum with “Focus” as I was really rooting for it and yet I’m wondering if I enjoyed the film more because it wasn’t as all over the board as it seemed to be or if it’s genuinely pretty fun. There is also the case of Will Smith. Smith is one of those personalities I feel like I’ve known my entire life and that I’ve grown up with. And like many, I’ve acquired an affinity for the actor/rapper over the years and have been happy to support him in his mega-stardom and remain hopeful when he delivers bombs like “After Earth.” If anything, anyone who is, was or might still be a Smith fan was looking to “Focus” to redeem our hope in big Willie’s style and get the guy back on track, back to where he needed to be both at this point in his life and career. For me, that was the aura surrounding this film and it felt good because Smith had never looked cleaner and the film had all the same slick edges to it that seemed to match Smith pound for pound in its style. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy Stupid Love”) these guys are the first ones in what seems like too long that actually know how to use Smith in what he does best. In “Focus” there are plenty of pretty people wearing what are no doubt outrageously expensive clothing in exotic locations, but it is the confidence of Smith not only in his appearance, but in the way he conducts himself and his ability to portray all of that effortlessly with a sense of cool to match that keeps him our main point of, well, focus. And so, despite being concerned I was coming at the film from something of a biased perspective (though really, I have no reason to) I can’t help but feel it follows through on what it promised in that it’s a stylish con man thriller in the vein of not only pulling one over on its characters, but the audience as well in that they’re too self-aware to go for the “one con to end them all” scheme, but that they instead get away with as many twists and turns as they do while coming out unscathed with audiences who are seemingly hip to their game. In a movie that is so much fun to watch with characters so attractive and interesting one is literally unable to take their eyes off the screen.
In the beginning there was a con man by the name of Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) who was more than extremely accomplished in the game. In fact, Nicky seems to exist on a level someone like me finds incomprehensible in the lengths they must go to in order to obtain their money. Of course, it is not all about the end goal, but more the rush of seeing if they can in fact pull it off. Nicky has a close circle of friends he trusts with the bigger cons he attempts to pull that mainly includes Farhad (Adrian Martinez) and Horst (Brennan Brown). That is, of course, until he meets a girl. This girl, Jess (Margot Robbie), is something of an amateur con artist looking to get in on the big game, but is doing nothing to impress Nicky by tricking him into her room and giving up on the con the moment he calls her bluff. Things progress though, Nicky is attracted to the gorgeous Jess, but for more than just her looks it seems and so he takes her under his wing to see if she might have what it takes. In New Orleans, around the Super Bowl, Nicky and his gang of pickpockets, thieves and generally despicable human beings preying on the weak test Jess. Her skills are proficient as is evidenced by her ability to lift almost anything off any innocent bystander and so Nicky brings her in on the bigger cons, but not before they become romantically involved. The tricky thing here is trying to decipher if a relationship based on genuine human emotion is possible for a man who lies and cheats for a living. Can he separate the two? Is he even willing to try? Ficarra and Requa have an interesting hook in this approach to two tales we’ve heard time and time again, but it is their tight and proficient script that allows the story to match up with the style and coolness of the images and characters presented on screen. It is in their ability to do this that the film gels even if it has a little trouble getting around to its finale on the story side of things.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on here, but in each of these circumstances we’re set up to watch unfold there is always a level of how high can the con go. It’s something of a game you play with yourself when you watch any kind of movie where you know the movie is not only out to trick its characters, but you as well. While the weight and stress of thinking the way Nicky must in order to constantly stay one step ahead seems daunting it is in his ability to anticipate and play the situation and the people around him that allows us to be taken with him. The audience wouldn’t be willing to play this game or even empathize with the protagonist if he was seen for what he actually is and so how do you make people root for a criminal? Well, 1) you hire Will Smith at his most charming and 2) you give them a level of humanity that we can see ourselves in, something that allows us to tell ourselves we would do the same were we in his shoes. It is the plight of the anti-hero, the same reasons we rooted for Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Walter White. To his credit, Smith almost doesn’t need that slither of humanity necessary to convince us we should be on his side, but rather he is detached from all the reasons we might understand the struggles and choices of someone typically labeled a bad man. The one link to humanity here is the possibility of actually caring about another human being in Jess and yet, half the time, we don’t even know if the feelings he exchanges with Robbie’s Jess are the real thing or part of a larger scheme. In setting this up Ficarra and Requa have played a game with their audience where they tempt us to want to look too close while at the same time daring us to try and remain detached. It is impossible to know how big the scheme might get because with filmmaking you can control every aspect of what you want to be seen and how you want things to be perceived. No matter if you become a legion of the fooled or not it must be appreciated when directors use the weapons in their arsenal to the max in order to hook and reel you in.
It also doesn’t hurt that Smith and Robbie have some pretty palpable chemistry here as well. If you didn’t see Robbie in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and don’t know who she is already (also, go ahead and rent “About Time”) you will certainly be aware of her after this as she cements her status as the perfect combination of everything it takes to become a movie star. She is unbelievably gorgeous on the big screen yet retains a credible quality to her personality where we take her seriously and who never comes off as being out of her own depth. Having now matched Leonardo DiCaprio and Smith on screen I’m interested to see what she does with the future projects she has lined up (“Suicide Squad”). As for what the couple does in “Focus,” they gel smoothly by playing off one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Nicky on the fact Jess might be more emotionally invested than him and Jess on the ego that has naturally come with Nicky’s building of his reputation and determination to carry on his family legacy in innovative ways. The rest of the cast is played to a polished gloss by the likes of Rodrigo Santoro (“300”) as he fits comfortably into the kind of archetypal persona he is asked to portray while both Gerald McRaney and BD Wong are show-stoppers with the witty dialogue and distinctive attitudes they’ve been given to play around with. Wong is especially memorable as he essentially only appears in one scene, but it is a scene that shifts “Focus” from a generally good, beautifully shot film of a story we’ve seen countless times to a rather exceptional piece of filmmaking. The scene, which includes Wong going back and forth with Smith over insignificant bets as the stack of money on the table grows bigger with Robbie in the middle of it all could be the perfect ending that encapsulates everything the directors wanted to say about these characters and their moral dilemmas in a 45-minute short film, but instead they continue the story. The continuation is in no way regrettable, but I’d be lying if I didn’t clarify the first segment of the film is where it’s at. Despite “Focus” having its fair share of flaws, they’re thankfully not of the glaring type in that Ficarra and Requa know what they’re doing to the point I’m not even sure those flaws weren’t intended.