Focus

focus movie poster

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

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Much Ado About Nothing Review

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Experience has taught us that pulling off contemporary Shakespeare adaptations are phenomenally hard to do as evidenced by the device opinions on both Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. This week, Joss Whedon of Avengers fame steps up to the metaphorical plate as he tackles Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

Several things are remarkable about Much Ado About Nothing purely from a production standpoint. For instance, the film was shot entirely at Whedon’s personal estate in Santa Monica, California. Additionally, and due in part to the very intimate scale of the production, filming was completed in just under two weeks- a remarkable timeframe- during Whedon’s contractually obligatory vacation after post-production of The Avengers. 

The film is beautifully directed, and one can tell that Whedon approaches the story with incredible enthusiasm. As is the case with much of Shakespeare’s work, the tempo of the piece is hugely important. Whedon proves that he has a clear vision of not only what the piece is supposed to look like, but he also gives special attention to the rhythm and the beauty of the spoken word. His actors, for the most part, do a masterful job of giving special emphasis to the language of the piece and the many complex and sometimes subtle exchanges between characters.

Starring an ensemble cast and featuring the talents of Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz, the film is a beautiful looking, light-hearted comedy with a fanciful, pseudo-noir feel. The trifecta of Denisof, Gregg and Kranz steal every scene they’re in and bring a fundamentally human element to Shakespeare’s sometimes unintelligibly highbrow dialogue. Performances were generally exceptional all around and were only dimmed by the only slightly stilled portrayals of the antagonists, Don John and Borachio.

I’ve heard it said that the style of the film- black and white with some chic and jazzy aesthetics- did nothing to serve the narrative and ultimately detracted from the experience. My thoughts, however, are the opposite. To me, it seems as though Whedon’s choice of a monochromatic color scheme is intended to allow the audience to focus more on the language and dialogue of the piece, rather be distracted by the set dressing. Speaking from my own personal experience, Shakespearian dialogue is often devilishly hard to understand, especially when we’re being introduced to new characters. Another possible reason for the aesthetic choices are to establish a tone of semi-fantasy- almost to a degree of magical realism. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll find that some pretty incredible things end up happening- things that might make more sense within the context of a sort of fanciful, magical world. Therefore, I believe Whedon’s choice was not only innovative, but practical as well.

I understand that the prospect of sitting through a two hour, black and white production filled with Shakespearian dialogue may be off-putting for some viewers, but I assure you that your fears are unfounded. Whedon’s interpretation of this classic comedy is smart, fun, expertly paced, beautiful looking, brilliantly acted, and genuinely funny. Much Ado About Nothing has made it’s way, quite unexpectedly, to my top films of the year and fully deserves and resounding recommendation.

Rating 4.5 out of 5