‘Focus’ Review: Welcome Back, Movie Star Will Smith
It’s been a decade since Will Smith was “Will Smith” onscreen. Sure, he’s made movies in the last ten years; science-fiction pictures, dramas, comedies. He even played Satan, once. But none of them riffed on that classic Will Smith persona that everyone loves; the infectious charm, the wry smile, the cocky but casual swagger. (What’s that? Men in Black 3? No, you must be confused. They never made a third Men in Black.) Smith’s last starring role was 2013’s After Earth, where he attempted to svengali his son to stardom playing future warrior Cypher Raige, who spent most of the film scowling in a chair as he slowly bled to death. That character, in other words, was neither fresh nor a prince.
Focus has more classic Will Smith stuff in its first ten minutes than After Earth had in its entire runtime. This is a star turn in an almost literal sense; the man lights up the screen with charisma, humor, and, yeah I’ll say it, sex appeal. Any random scene of him and co-star Margot Robbie flirting over cocktails is hotter than the totality of Fifty Shades of Grey. And this movie is like 30 percent Will Smith and Margot Robbie flirting over cocktails. The other 70 percent a con man film in the Ocean’s Eleven or Duplicity mold; glossy, neon-lit images; beautiful people in luxe costumes; screwball comedy-esque battle-of-the-sexes banter; endless double- and triple-crosses. And pretty much 100 percent of it is entertaining. It’s a perfect palate cleanser after the heaviness of Oscar season.
Smith’s Nicky and Robbie’s Jess meet by chance in a bar as she’s fleeing a disastrous date. A few hours later she invites him up to her hotel room, where they’re interrupted by her “husband.” He pulls a gun; Nicky barely moves a muscle. It’s a con, and a bad one, and Nicky, an experienced grifter, sees right through it. But he likes Jess despite her inexperience and follows her out of the hotel. He offers some pointers on pickpocketing, and when she trails him to New Orleans, where Nicky’s team is working the high rollers at a big football game, he gladly lets her join as their “intern” and resident bombshell.
Saying what happens beyond that set-up would risk spoiling the surprises, and a con man movie is all about the surprises. Maybe that’s why I enjoy them so much; at a time when most Hollywood genres have grown stale, Focus is refreshingly hard to predict. Just when you sniff out the rules of the game it’s playing, it switches things up. The audience is just another mark for Nicky and his crew, and I’ll admit it: This movie fooled me several times. Like any good con man, Focus understands the art of misdirection, and it repeatedly and satisfyingly swerves into unexpected territory.
Some consideration of the trust issues inherent in all relationships aside, there’s not a ton to Focus beneath its surface pleasures, but its surfaces are pleasurable as hell. The dialogue, by directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris), crackles with cleverness and just the right amount of vulgarity. (“I like boobs,” is Nicky’s matter-of-fact explanation for his initial interest in Jess.) Smith and Robbie’s have terrific chemistry, and there are surprisingly meaty supporting roles for Adrian Martinez as Nicky’s computer expert and Major Dad himself (and more recently Raymond Tusk on House of Cards) Gerald McRaney as a skeptical security chief for a racing magnate (Rodrigo Santoro) who figures prominently into the back half of the film. Smith and McRaney have several delightfully combative scenes that should play particularly well on repeat viewings.
Robbie more than proves her star-making turn in The Wolf of Wall Street was no fluke, but ultimately this is Will Smith’s — or “Will Smith”’s — film, and he owns every frame of it. This is the guy we want to watch. We don’t want to see him brooding in the ruins of New York City, or doing weird things with jellyfish, or telling his obnoxious teenage son to take a knee. We want that relaxed confidence — a con man is nothing without it. Nicky claims at one point that he can talk someone in doing anything. When this Will Smith says it, I believe it.