Focus (2015)

Will Smith is still one of the biggest names in Hollywood.  While his star has dimmed a bit in the last few years, it’s probably still fair to say that he has his choice of scripts as much as any other actor in the business.  Which is why it’s disappointing that he has made some poor choices the last few years, turning down Django Unchained and seeking out M. Night Shyamalan to direct After Earth, a movie he helped write and produce.  Will Smith has made a lot of money-making blockbuster movies for a long time and after the experience of After Earth he said he wanted to start finding more “danger” in his artistic choices going forward.  Focus is the first dangerous step out that he has taken since After Earth.  If After Earth was a movie that was D.O.A. when it was released, Focus is a movie that struggles to maintain a pulse despite some good performances from the leads, Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

Nicky (Smith) is a con man.  Considered by people in the business to be one of the best in the world.  He happens into a con in New York City by two amateurs at a hotel bar, one of whom, Jess (Robbie), ends up pleading with him to show her what he knows, Nicky takes her under his wing and teaches her some of the business tricks to improve her game.  She follows him to New Orleans and gets involved with him romantically and in a big score at a Super Bowl.  After going their separate ways, Nicky pops up in Buenos Aries a few years later and runs across Jess again, now a full on femme fatale on the right arm of Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the man at the center of his latest job.  Also complicating matters is the head of Garriga’s security team, Owens (Gerald McRaney), who is immediately suspicious of Nicky.  There are a lot of twists and turns and questions about where loyalties lie and when a con is on and not throughout the film.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) give everything a polished sheen.  Everything looks good, especially when the story moves to Argentina.  Will Smith and Margot Robbie are good actors, able to create some good chemistry and play off each other in a lot of scenes rather nicely.  Some of the details involving how Nicky shifts the focus of people to be able to take what he and his team wants is impressive.  And Will Smith real comes alive in the climax of the film.  The film also touches on issues of trust and intimacy, and how difficult, maybe impossible, it is to earn it back once it has been betrayed.

Sadly, the film mostly takes mostly a surface level look at these ideas and does not take them to heart because it spends most of its runtime betraying the trust of the audience, manipulating and outright deceiving the viewer in the name of looking clever and out-smarting the audience.  Also, a lot of what happens here strains credulity, a lot of which could be forgiven if the leads are entertaining and there is a level of fun or certain level of zip and flash involved in the storytelling of a film like this, take Ocean’s 11 for example.  There is not enough of that here.  I was surprised how boring I found the film for long stretches.  There is also a scene in snowy New York that is a shameless rip-off of Out of Sight and the hotel bar scene between Clooney and Lopez and lightly falling snow outside the window.

The film lost me at the Super Bowl stand-in event and never won me back after.  Nicky and Jess attend the Super Bowl in New Orleans after spending the week making millions off of conning people in town for the game where Nicky has a whole crew set up to pull things off.  As they sit in their suite watching the game, which Jess doesn’t really know anything about or have any interest in, they start making bets on people in the crowd, sparking the interest of a Japanese businessman in a suit sitting nearby who wants in on the action.  Because of how this plays out, there ends up being two scenes prior that end up being in the movie merely to mislead the audience.  This is not clever, it’s lazy cheating.

The constant manipulation and deception of the movie alienated me and kept me from truly enjoying it.  If the box office is any indication, this is going to be another Will Smith movie that underperforms.  Margot Robbie will be ok.  She is one of the best things about the movie.  Her star is still on the rise.  Will Smith, by his own words, seems to want to diversify his brand and not make blockbusters exclusively.  If this is indeed the case, I would suggest going the Matthew McConaughey route.  Don’t just pick scripts because they are dangerous and different from what people expect from you.  Pick scripts that have good directors attached to them.  The McConnaissance happened because he started working with directors like William Friedkin, Richard Linklater, Jeff Nichols, Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan.  Will Smith has been and can be a star.  He can be an acclaimed actor too.  But he needs better material than films like Focus.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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