A wonderfully acted romantic comedyMovie Review Thursday, March 5th, 2015
I heard someone on the radio refer to Focus as “that Will Smith movie the studio is dumping in February.” I was surprised partly because Will Smith movies, even atrocious ones, don’t ever get dumped during the late summer or early winter dump zones, and partly because Focus is written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who don’t make bad movies. Focus, while frothy and flawed, fits nicely into Requa and Ficarra’s oeuvre of very funny, handsomely made, wonderfully acted romantic comedies.
Will Smith plays Nicky, an extremely successful and absurdly smooth conman who meets a blonde seductress named Jess when she tries to con him and fails miserably. Jess, played by Margot Robbie, asks Nicky to teach her to be a better con artist, and while he is resistant of developing any sort of relationship, he is clearly drawn to her. He gives her some pointers and then vanishes. She finds him in New Orleans, where he is prepping a group of pickpockets and con artists to victimize tourists in town for a big football game that seems a lot like the Super Bowl. He allows her to join the crew and she shows herself to be a rather stellar addition.
Their incessant flirting finally leads to sex and a bit of romance. After the con artists celebrate their massive haul of cash and goods, Nicky takes Jess to watch the big game in a luxury box, where they end up in a terribly destructive betting war with Liyuan, a Chinese gambler played by BD Wong. I won’t spoil what happens, but suffice it to say, it’s a series of surprises because with Nicky, everything is a con. Jess is left devastated and is unhappy to see Nicky three years later in Buenos Aires, where they are working different cons with Rodrigo Santoro and Gerald McRaney. They con each other, engage in longing looks and wacky banter, and fall in love.
There’s an incoherence to the plot because it relies on so many twists, which are based on so many lies. In some con movies, like the rather silly Now You See Me, the illusions are impossible and you simply suspend your disbelief and move on. Focus is meant to be or at least seem real; the actors are occasionally so natural that improvisation can be the only reason. So, when things get really weird, it’s a bit much to take. But the acting is so good and some of the writing so funny that the inconsistencies become glossed over. Mostly.
Will Smith is excellent as Nicky. Much more sedate as the cool criminal than he often is in action films and broad comedies, he oozes the kind of quiet charm that George Clooney did in Out of Sight; it’s possibly an imitation, and if so, it’s a good one. Margot Robbie, who narrowly missed an Oscar nomination as Jordan Belfort’s high-on-cash wife in Wolf of Wall Street, is a delight as the smart, skillful, often hilarious, often tough bombshell who almost brings down Nicky.
Several of the supporting actors steal their scenes. Adrian Martinez is the flamboyantly funny Farhad, one of Nicky’s close associates, and is full of filthy commentary. Gerald McRaney is a dangerous and grumpy old man who has great fun explaining his reasons for being appalled by young people. And BD Wong’s repartee with Nicky during their gambling dual is one of the film’s highlights. Liyuan’s smile is both endearing and sinister, and Wong energizes the film just when things seem to be getting dreary.
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