Editor’s Notes: Focus is currently out in wide theatrical release.
Focus is an intriguing little mixed bag of heavy style and breezy romantic comedy, delivered by a writer-director team that is swiftly becoming the go-to duo for such oddball combos. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa fashion themselves as specialists of two-tone filmmaking. Look no further than their early credits as a writing team, where they delivered the fuzzy family-oriented Cats and Dogs, followed by the decidedly less fuzzy and family-oriented Bad Santa. They are now three films in as writer-directors, and the first two entries in their oeuvre – I Love You, Phillip Morris and Crazy Stupid Love – once again toe the line between brazen comedy and heavier thematic content. There always seems to be serious intentions lurking just beneath the surface of any Ficarra-Requa film, intentions that are flirted with and then abandoned in favor of a more grandly comic conclusion.
Focus is an intriguing little mixed bag of heavy style and breezy romantic comedy, delivered by a writer-director team that is swiftly becoming the go-to duo for such oddball combos.
I can’t say the trend is bucked in Focus, which deals in slick crime with dire implications, but is ultimately just a crafty romantic comedy about male-female dynamics elevated to a fever pitch. But in the vein, the film is swift and successful, a fun studio-fueled ride with style and attitude to spare. Not a bad cure for an Oscar Hangover.
Allow me to be the first to welcome Will Smith back to the big time – or, if not the “Big Time,” at least the world of good movies. It wasn’t long ago that Smith was the most bankable star in Hollywood. Then After Earth happened. And outside of a couple small cameos, Smith largely fell off the pop culture landscape for a while. This film is the perfect choice for a would-be “comeback” role – it’s not a franchise, it’s not a mega-effects epic, it’s an original, character-based, R-rated film that allows Smith to engage both his natural charm and his acting ability.
Charm is part of the skill for Nicky (Smith), who is the head of a con operation so sophisticated and broadly employed that it almost feels corporate. Seriously, these guys lift everyday items like they’re performing sleight of hand magic tricks, but then retreat to a veritable war room complete with professional mood lighting and an apparent computer network. The only thing this crew doesn’t provide its schemers is formal paychecks…just cuz, ya know, dirty money.
Smith and Robbie are damn near irresistible in both pleasure and peril.
It’s in the middle of a weekend-long con operation in New Orleans that Nicky meets Jess (Margot Robbie), who proves to be the only person capable of denting Nicky’s otherwise unimpeachable exterior. She has dreams (if one can call them that) of success in the con game, but she is “small time,” to say the least. Nicky uses the weekend to school Jess in the ways of smooth criminality…and, it seems, at for a fleeting moment, fall in love. Their momentary connection appears to reach a swift conclusion, but cut to three years later. Nicky comes out of quasi-retirement to pull off a scam in coordination with an impossibly Indy Car sponsor (Rodrigo Santoro), when to his surprise he discovers Jess is his benefactor’s girlfriend. Snappy, sexy romantic confidence games ensue.
It’s kinda that simple – and yet it’s completely enthralling and occasionally riveting. Focus thrives on the chemistry between Smith and Robbie, and that interplay is the basis for every turn of the screenplay. As most con-man movies are want to do, there are plenty of twists along the way, but each one is granular – Nicky and Jess are playing an intimate confidence game, and theirs is a narrative based entirely on kinks of personality. Though that description sounds vaguely shallow, Ficarra and Requa are sneaky in how they infuse the surface attitude with enough unspoken ennui to enliven these characters with unspoken depth. And for their part, Smith and Robbie are damn near irresistible in both pleasure and peril. I wouldn’t mind seeing more from both duos in the future.
It’s kinda that simple – and yet it’s completely enthralling and occasionally riveting. Focus thrives on the chemistry between Smith and Robbie, and that interplay is the basis for every turn of the screenplay.