Warning: Review contains incredibly mild spoilers
Synopsis: In the midst of veteran con man Nicky’s latest scheme, a woman from his past – now an accomplished femme fatale – shows up and throws his plans for a loop. (From IMDb)
Review: Will Smith is one of my favorite actors; eight time out of ten, I will go see a movie due to his presence. However, the past decade has not gone well for Smith. Well, Men in Black 3 was a hit even though the narrative was not as polished as the other two installments. He also starred in the forgettable Seven Pounds and the horrific After Earth. Focus is Smith’s first R-rated film in several years and was meant to serve as a bit of a comeback. On one hand, I enjoyed seeing Smith in a more adult role that fits his charismatic personality. On the other hand, the screenplay is an uneven mishmash of two genres and does not do either well. My brothers’ thought the film was boring. While I have seen more exciting con man movies, Focus had several redeeming moments. Though I do not think it will be an enormous box office hit. Hopefully Smith will back on form in the Suicide Squad.
The screenplay contained a lot of brisk and snappy dialogue for the cast to work with, both as a team and individually. Onscreen, Smith and Margot Robbie have a sizzling chemistry that really elevates the dialogue to the next level. Everything moves along at a nice pace until the screenplay runs out of steam in the middle of the third act. Whenever the plot had a down moment, the camera zoomed in on Smith’s nipples. I am not kidding, I counted three separate times where the left corner of the screen was dominated by Smith’s naked nipples. As vibrant at the characters are on screen, there is not much depth to them beneath the designer clothing. This makes it hard to connect emotionally with the characters because there is nothing more than what we see. Nicky at least has some backstory with his cold hearted father, this is meant to explain his world weary cynicism. However, Robbie’s Jess is not given any backstory and has about as much characterization as her designer wardrobe.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with this film is the depiction of Jess. First of all, Robbie is 24 years old and playing the romantic paramour to a 45 year old Smith. Despite the natural chemistry between the two, they just look odd together on screen. The romance would have been more believable if Jess had been the intellectual equal of Nicky. But she was not. All Jess does is prance around on screen and try to look innocent. Second, the character herself is a horrible caricature. Jess falls in love with Nicky for no discernable reason, he shows her how to con people and then she is head-over-heels. Because every woman just wants to learn how to steal from people. And then bam, we become hopelessly enamored with our teacher. Third, there is this one scene where Nicky describes how easy it is to seduce women. Just appeal to their emotions, the “fuzzy stuff”, buy them gifts, and analyze body behavior. Oh, and emphasize past history, shared connections, and get naked. For a film that tries to bill itself as possessing a romantic theme the movie is utterly devoid of any romantic tension. Sexual tension is not the same as romance.
Despite the lack of characterization, several of the characters really stole the show. B.D. Wong showed up to play a super-rich playboy with an out-of-control gambling problem. This one section of the film could have worked as a standalone short. There is a strong dramatic arc and has the right mix of tension and comedy. Yet it feels slightly out of place in the overarching narrative. After this movie, you will never listen to the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil in the same way. Adam Martinez puts in a good appearance as Farhad, Nicky’s right-hand man. He steals most of the scenes he is in and has some hard R comedy moments. Smith does a good job as the world-weary Nicky. His charisma is more than sufficient to carry a film, but the screenplay does not give him a lot of strong material. None of the characters really stood out, they are just kind of there. At the end of the movie, I could not tell you anything memorable about the characters.
For a film about unpredictable twists, the narrative seems rather predictable. While everyone is lying and nothing is as it seems, what is actually occurring can be glaringly obvious. Though I though the final twist was fantastic. Part of the problem with the narrative was a lack of an overarching plot. Instead of focusing on one or two major cons, the film loosely ties together several vignettes and includes a training montage. The second half of the film deal with a major con involving high-tech engineering meant to make race cars faster. Nicky uses the situation to con everyone around him and sets up the major climax. However, the whole scenario lacks any dramatic depth because no time is spent actually exploring all the different players. Part of the fun with these kinds of films is trying to figure out who is in on the con and who is not. But Focus is all surface and never delves into the details. The story contained a lot of potential to be a fantastic con man film along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven. Unfortunately, the screenplay never quite found the needed dramatic depth to elevate the story from “meh” to “fantastic”. On the bright side, the movie is gorgeous to watch.