The last Will Smith movie I saw was the troublingly bad After Earth (I don’t really understand how M. Night continues to get opportunities to make movies at this point in his career). While Focus hadn’t been on my radar until a few days ago, I was excited at the chance to wipe away the memories of After Earth (for the sake of Mr. Smith’s reputation) with something at least watchable. That excitement grew when I realized that the movie was directed by the tag-team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the guys who brought us the very enjoyable Crazy, Stupid, Love. Safe to say, Focus continued the longstanding tradition of entertaining Will Smith movies and things are now right with the world.
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) comes from a long line of conmen. His father was a conman. His grandfather was a conman. And he’s been able to cultivate a rather successful existence as one too by relying on the training his father provided him. But when neophyte conwoman Jess (Margot Robbie) enters his life as his (eventual) apprentice and accomplice, Nicky finds himself having trouble sticking to his professional principle of staying emotionally uninvolved.
In the pretty long string of mediocre/inoffensive movies that Smith has recently starred in, you could at least count on seeing a charming and charismatic performance. The fact that After Earth failed to provide even the opportunity for Will Smith to be Will Smith was a devastating misstep. But fortunately, Focus rectifies that injustice. Smith is often dazzling as Nicky, expertly playing all of the different facets and faces we’ve come to expect from an elite conman. He’s a naturally magnetic force and that shines through beautifully with this character, making it all the more convincing when he’s able to successfully bend other people to his subtle and mysterious will. Ultimately, it’s a relief watching him have fun being in a movie again. And when Will Smith’s having fun in a movie, you can trust that the audience is, too.
Margot Robbie flashed her own considerable charm as the evolving conwoman Jess and also had the opportunity to demonstrate some more depth than I think she was able to in The Wolf of Wall Street. She and Smith have legitimate, often smoldering chemistry (I am now especially curious to see how they play together in Suicide Squad [I’m very excited to see what she does with Harley Quinn]) and once Jess gets through her initial training course, she’s convincingly able to hold her own against Smith’s butter-smooth moves and even, on occasion, hold the advantage (no small feat, I assure you). While the banter between Nicky and Jess is consistently funny, it’s actually Adrian Martinez’s Farhad (in a strong sidekick and comic relief role) who provides some of the movie’s best laughs.
Movies about heists and conmen tend to have an assortment of twists and turns that befit their subject matter. Focus is no exception. Trying to root out those twists and turns in Focus before they’re revealed is an exceptionally entertaining exercise and one that on a couple of occasions could be deemed frustrating (mostly because I failed to catch on quickly enough). On that same note, these types of movies are tricky for me. While it’s satisfying playing the game and figuring out what the twists will be, it can be exhausting to be constantly on when you’re trying to just watch a movie. It’s difficult to just turn off the constant analysis and let the events unfold. Of course, that’s my fault, but also can serve as a warning for people who have similar predilections. And while there’s no risk of confusing it with The Sting, Focus really does throw twists at the audience at a near breakneck speed, almost reaching the absurd (and introducing some likely plot holes [which you don’t necessarily have time to notice or reflect on]) by the time the last few sets of reveals are made.
Focus doesn’t do much to reinvent the heist/conman genre, but that’s totally fine. It tells an interesting and compelling story with a more than ample number of surprises starring a strong cast that really crackles together. It also doesn’t do much to elevate our understanding of Will Smith’s acting range or ability, but it’s a pleasant and welcome return to the safe, reliable crowd-pleasing efforts that he’s made a wildly successful career on. On its own merit, I’d say that’s plenty good enough but in light of the bomb that was After Earth, it seemed particularly important to see that he hadn’t lost the touch that gained him seemingly universal adoration.