by Brian Surber
I couldn’t help but watch Focus and enjoy myself. It’s sleek, well made, features two strong central performances, at least one outstanding scene, has twists and turns, and is occasionally pretty funny. What’s not to like? I’m not sure, but here I sit giving the film less than three stars. For all the glitz and glamour of Focus, there lies what I can’t help but feel is an emptiness. There isn’t much underneath the surface of Focus; no message or meaning to take away. And while the film falters in that regard, it sure makes up for it in some polished fun.
Will Smith stars as Nicky, a third generation con artist, who reluctantly takes Margot Robbie’s Jess under his wing. His teaches her the art of his trade, accepts her into his crew, and, because why not, falls in love with her. That’s just the first half. The film takes an unexpected turn to begin its second act that I won’t give away here. I will say that once the film separates Nicky and Jess there is a lot of heat lost on that screen.
Will Smith, in his 3rd decade of acting, shows us why he still commands a screen. He exudes charisma, charm, danger, emotion, empathy, and realism into all his roles, and this one is no different. He constantly comes through to deliver a big screen performance. His Nicky is confident and calm but carries a deep pain that stems from childhood. It’s a shame the film doesn’t either further this pain or help him heal it.
Margot Robbie, in her second (!) major role, shows a shocking amount of control of not only her character but of the screen itself. She is a magnetic screen presence and more than holds her own against Will Smith (let that sink in for a second). Robbie, who surprised a lot of people with her breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street, is proving role by role that she is someone with quite a future.
The film is directed with flair by filmmaking team Glen Ficarra and John Requa. Their previous two directing jobs were the fantastic I Love You Philip Morris and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Not only are these three films a part of three varying genres (dramedy, romantic comedy, dark comedy) but they each have their own specific style, and I can’t help but appreciate that. The film looks great. It’s beautifully shot and edited, not wasting any of its locations. The lighting is razor-sharp and helps heighten the said “focus” of the film.
Oddly enough, the crux of the film is about “focus”; the art of drawing the eye and keeping attention away from what is really going on. This keeps the audience on their toes, guessing what will come next and questioning what is happening onscreen. The tactic might be an annoyance to some, but it makes the film more fun by making us more aware along with its characters. The irony with the film being about focus, using focus to enhance the experience for its viewer, and being called Focus is that it seems to lack…you get the idea.
The film bounces around different ideas and unfortunately uses its twists and turns to get to a nice conclusion. The twists are welcome, especially in a film like this, but while some of them are serious in nature, others are comedic. The balance isn’t really there and it’s odd the film can’t seem to find its footing in the end. The characters are there and for the most part well drawn, they just don’t seem to change all that much. The characters change to a certain point half way through the film and the second half consists of them trying to get back to that point. So when the resolution arrives and the final scene ends we are underwhelmed by the eventual outcome. It’s pretty fun getting there, though.
The camera moves in very interesting ways; using low angles, long shots, and (what else?) rack focus to give the picture the glossiness we desire in this type of film. The standout scene involves a (for lack of better word) crony purchasing a seemingly random assortment of goods and proceeding to get into his car. Some of the trailers have given away the dramatic ending to this scene but I won’t. The scene does end in an incredibly impressive and long spectacle that shows the style of this picture in breakneck fashion. It’s really quite a fun sequence.
Focus is a film that looks and feels like a sure thing. It’s big, bright, and beautiful, it contains two incredibly strong performances, it is a blast that ends with a fizzle. Will Smith can still carry a film and I hope he makes more like this one. Focus just disappoints as it nears its end. It’s a fun film that takes the pleasure of pairing two very good actors together and letting the chemistry take over. It’s flawed, to be sure, but it’s well made and well-intentioned. In spite of its flaws, the film tries and is able to give its audience a good time. And I can’t really fault it for that.
Rating – 1/2