I’m behind the times—it’s true. To such a degree, in fact, that I’m using this (tentative) return from hiatus to talk about a movie that isn’t even in theaters any more. So, Focus, and the question that’s on everyone’s minds: can Will Smith bounce back from the two consecutive train wrecks that were After Earth and Winter’s Tale? Let’s find out!
Focus bills itself as a “romantic dark comedy” and comes to us from long-time writing/directing partners John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. The duo got their start writing for Nickelodeon and, since then, have built a résumé consisting of hits like Cats & Dogs (2001), Bad Santa (2003), that remake of Bad News Bears a few years ago, and I Love You, Philip Morris (2009). Interestingly, Requa’s most profitable enterprise to date was the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love in 2011, which he directed but did not write.
Suffice it to say, the pair’s performance has been spotty at best, and that certainly shows when looking at Focus as a whole. The refrain that I kept going back to throughout the film was: do you expect me to believe that? The movie is trying to be this slick, contemporary Ocean’s Eleven that captures the glamour of the grifter lifestyle, and while it mostly succeeds from a visual standpoint, the plot is so full of holes and relies almost exclusively on happenstance and coincidence that it graduates from “suspension of disbelief” to outright impossibility.
I’m thinking of one scene in particular that involves Will Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon trying to keep a privately employed snoop out of his apartment, but—spoiler warning—later in the plot we discover that the Nicky and the snoop were on the same side the entire time, and that the only reason that the scene existed at all was to cynically build a momentary tension that makes zero sense in the larger context of the film. It’s falsely manipulative and moreover, it shows a certain contempt for the audience on the part of the writers.
Be that as it may, I have to tip my hat to Will Smith for looking halfway interested in what he was doing. In an age of too-cool-for-school protagonists who apparently think that displaying any sort of emotion beyond boredom tempered with general apathy is for sissies, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see a character look even vaguely passionate about what’s going on. Even Margot Robbie, a relative newcomer to the industry, looks like she’s having a good time on-screen. I just wish that they all had better material to work with.
In some ways, Focus is disappointing more than anything else, mostly because it was almost a good movie and did a few things right. There were a number of cool moments, and I found it really interesting and engaging how we didn’t know whether or not to trust Smith’s character until the end, but the broad strokes were what killed the experience for me. The film earns a lot of goodwill (perhaps unduly) for the charming performances in the middle of an otherwise barren cinematic wasteland, but looses that goodwill almost immediately with some lame plotting and a twist ending that insults the audience’s intelligence.
As I say, the film has already been pulled in most places, and mere mention of it at this juncture might provoke the raise of an eyebrow accompanied by the phrase, “Oh, that was a thing?” Indeed, Focus is fairly forgettable and doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself, even during the customarily unremarkable Q1 release period.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5