Will Smith is nothing short of a box office titan. As I’m writing this, his films have grossed a combined total of over 6.5 Billion Dollars. He holds the record for consecutive films grossing at least 100 million dollars at 8. His recent films like “Men in Black 3” or “Seven Pounds” put a minor damper on an otherwise pristine resume. Then it happened, and by it I mean “After Earth”. A film so universally hated it made Will Smith publically doubt himself and his future in the business. Focus in a lot of ways is Will Smith’s return to form. Not necessarily his money printing form, but a role he is comfortable portraying on camera.
Focus follows a character named Nicky “Mellow” Spurgeon. He is a legacy con-man like his father and the father before him. Nicky is calm, cool, collected and most importantly experienced. He happens across a small time con-artist named Jess. He was initially a mark for her own game, and out of “professional curiosity” he let it play out. When she finally comes to realize who he is, and how good he is. She desperately compels him to teach her the ropes. Nicky doesn’t seem too keen on teaching, but he may see something a little special in Jess.
The film doesn’t take long to remind you of its premise “FOCUS”. Shortly into the film is a very charming scene between Nicky and Jess. An impromptu and flirtatious lesson on what it means to capture focus. Gain the focus of your mark and you can exploit them in many different ways. This scene puts Will Smith’s and upcoming starlet Margot Robbie chemistry on display. Margot Robbie almost stole the show from Leonardo DiCaprio in “Wolf on Wall Street”. Her ability to go punch for punch with some of the Hollywood’s proven A-listers is very impressive considering she’s just really getting started in her career.
This film is a little difficult to review in a typical sense, because it doesn’t quite play out like a regular film. I would split this film into two very distinct acts, and maybe even three if I thought about it hard enough. The first act deals with Nicky integrating Jess into his seasoned crew of con-artist. They have gathered in the friendly city of New Orleans during the super bowl. The goal to take advantage of all the people occupied with the game, partying and having a good time. This is a world building arc, it’s an exclusive look at the operations Nicky is capable of. They don’t spend a lot of time focusing on other con-artist on the team, but one does stand out. Adrian Martinez as Farhad, who excels as the awkward but lovable type. All types of “cons” are on display as his team almost effortlessly rob, lie, cheat and steal a small fortune. A lot of these scenes are extremely fun to watch and at the same time. I’ve never wished more for all of this to be hollywood movie magic! I checked for my wallet probably 3 times more than I usually do during this movie and afterwards.
As you would suspect, it doesn’t take long for the romance of the film to take root. However, shortly after the completion of the job Nicky has a change of heart. He seems clear-headed enough to know that romance and lying for a living don’t mix. They go their separate ways, and this leads into the second act of the film. A fated reunion three years later in Buenos Aires during a very lucrative job for Nicky. Nicky’s lingering thoughts on their relationship threaten the con in play. He will try to win Jess back and hopefully complete the job in the process.
My overall thought on the plot is that it could have used more work. It doesn’t flow very well, and if it wasn’t for the chemistry between Smith and Robbie. It would have fallen flat on its face way sooner than it actually did. Like any kind of film that plays with the concept of deception, you know some twist is coming during the ending. The twists with this film are fine, but the film tries almost a little too hard. The problem deception movies have in general is walking the fine line between characters deceiving other characters and characters deceiving the audience. Deceiving the audience is a commendable goal, but it often comes with the expense of characters doing and/or saying things that don’t make sense in the context of the film. If you come into this kind of movie with an open mind and are actively searching for clues, it could spell trouble for your overall experience. Trying to stay ahead of the mystery is something I think a lot of people do with this kind of movie. You don’t want to let a detail slip as it could be really important later. Then when it happens, a detail you held onto becomes confusing because it doesn’t make contextual sense other than to purposefully mislead you. It’s a trade-off directors have to consider, is the short-term win of catching your audience off guard better than the long-term consequence of your film not adding up perfectly. I’ll let you be your own judge on that front.
Which brings it to the overall point. While this film has flaws, it never gets in the way of the fun. I mentioned before this is Will Smith’s return to form. In interviews leading up to the release of FOCUS. Will Smith commented on his feelings about After Earth and how it’s failure made him reassess himself. Focus is the first film he has done in a long while that is knee-deep in expectations. It’s a typical job as far as Will Smith is concerned. The goal isn’t to win an Oscar, or break a box office record. It’s to be entertaining, to provide a good experience for the fans. That is what Focus is all about, and that’s what it does undoubtably well. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of box office Will, and I bet he’ll contend for another Oscar at some point in the future. However, for now.. he is just focused on now. See what I did there?