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Say what you will about Will Smith’s recent offerings, but one thing is as clear as it has always been, and that is Smith’s talent and skill is undeniable. There is a school of thought that says Focus signifies a return to form for Smith given the box-office failure of his last film After Earth, which to be fair, was more of a Jaden Smith movie, but really, he has not gone anywhere.
Smith stars as Nicky Spurgeon, a seasoned con-man who has been in the business for a very long time. He meets Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), a relatively inexperienced swindler in New York, who desperately wants Spurgeon to teach her a thing or two about the real business and art of the con. After using her natural talent to find him in New Orleans, Nicky reluctantly agrees to take her under his wing and puts her through a make-or-break test, which she passes. From there it’s smooth sailing, that is until things between the two get too close for comfort. An unexplained separation ensues and the dance between Nicky and Jess is brought to an abrupt end. That is until the two run into each other three years later. Let’s just say that things get even more interesting from here.
Focus is probably the most surprising bit of work Will Smith has been a part of. It is the latest in a series of slightly off-kilter films from him like Seven Pounds or Hancock. In terms of character and story, Focus just offers up something completely unexpected in a very good way. It’s easy to see what attracted Smith to this project. Here, he brings the charisma and trademark ‘Will Smith’ humor we are so familiar with and it feels like putting on an old, comfortable sweater. Is this meant to say that Smith is getting old? Absolutely not! He is as eternally youthful as he’s ever been and in remarkable shape (Hugh Jackman has been officially put on notice, Smith is on the way). He also brings nice touches of pathos to Nicky Spurgeon that allow us traces into what makes him tick, as the film does not delve into all the reasons why he moves the way he does.
Margot Robbie is no slouch here either; she’s a rising star who continues to only rise higher following a star-making turn in 2013s The Wolf of Wall Street. Everyone knows how extremely gorgeous she is and that’s all fine and good. However, it so happens that this woman can actually act, and can do so very well, proving that she’s definitely more than just a pretty face. She goes toe-to-toe with Smith and is quite formidable; it is entertaining to watch the sparks fly between them. So, she can do the dramatic, but she has solid comedic timing to boot. It does not hurt either that she and Smith share great chemistry upon which a particularly unique relationship is built. The two do much for this already strong dramedy, making it even stronger, while bringing out the best in each other.
Other strong aspects of this film include the glossy, top-notch look to the piece and the ways it plays with how certain parts and subjects within the various shots are either in plain focus, slightly out of focus, or both. For a movie called Focus, it’s just another one of those subtle treats for the eye that serves a deeper, less obvious function of speaking to the theme of keeping and/or losing focus while on the job and the conversation to be had there. The story’s structure and the devices used to tell it, also mirror this notion of focus for the audience and gets us to constantly ask questions dealing with what should we focus on and for how long; are we being conned too? One never knows and it’s wonderfully engaging. The sharp editing is one of several key factors that aid in underscoring just how engaging everything is, keeping the pacing consistent and allowing the movie to still feel like a full and satisfying meal. Not too much, not too little, but just right.
The film comes dangerously close to overcomplicating itself in terms of plot, but always manages to pilot itself back to the straight and true position, or as straight and true as can be expected for a film that deals heavily with deception. It is the deception of this film, along with stars Smith and Robbie, as well as solid work from players like B.D. Wong and Gerald McRaney, that make this film every bit the treat it is. Check Focus out if for nothing else, the surprise factor. You just might want to catch it a second time to see how many details you can keep in focus without missing the whole point.