Focus Margot Robbie

Focus Review: A Breezy Good Time

Friday, March 06, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro
Rating: Three and a Half Stars out of Five

Everyone involved in Focus understands the ability of cinema to provide escapism. It is a movie that stands for taking a break, chowing down on some confectionary goodness, a way to kick back an enjoy yourself. It won't answer the big questions or fix your problems. It won't even consider them or acknowledge them, respectively. This is, inarguably, a good thing in moderation. It's not the type of movie that should be made a hundred percent of the time, but boy is it fun when we get one like it.

Will Smith plays Nicky, an old pro of the con man persuasion. Raised in the game, he can spot a grift from any distance, like the one perpetrated early in the film by Margot Robbie's Jess. He's there with a tried and true management trick, the Build-Break-Build. He offers criticism, then praises the good qualities of her craftsmanship, and finishes with the ways she can get better. He's a corporate thief if anything, a company man without a company, enjoying the work in front of him.

This is a small but important break from the typical con man arc we get at the movies. Nicky is not some burnt out slob when we meet him. Despite his warnings about how this profession can get you killed, it's hard to see how he believes that deep down. He's had an all right go of it, and he has learned to appreciate the highs and shrug off the infrequent lows. He didn't go through the “what will I do with my life?” growing pains because this is what is meant for him. He gets it. He likes it. He wants to share it.

He's at the top of his game when he meets and instructs Robbie on some of the finer points of stealing things. She softens the calculating intelligence she had as the more-than-meets-the-eye trophy wife in Martin Scorsese's 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street, instead revealing herself to be a quick study, eager to make something of herself in this glamorous, if illicit, life. It's refreshing to see Jess earn Nicky's trust not through deception, “out for myself” gamesmanship, or simply because the plot requires it, but through hard work and the ability to quickly correct whatever small mistakes she makes along the way. There's a love/lust story component, of course, but the nuts and bolts of their relationship is a learning situation between teacher and pupil.

And that love story is a product of co-writers and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa script, I Love You Phillip Morris) installing actual agency in her. She is not seduced by Nicky. She likes him and he likes her. They choose to act on their feelings. It's not a situation in which he has to pull one over on her to get her into bed with him. There's a lot of respect between the two, with none of that Bond girl sexual control stuff going on.

Where the film veers into less than great territory is in its long con segments. It is split into two halves, with one job taking place in New Orleans during Super Bowl weekend and the second, set three years later, at a Formula One race in Rio de Janeiro. After recruiting Jess to his band of thieves to perform a huge volume of lifts on the drunken buffoons around the city before the big game, Nicky takes her to the game to celebrate and have some fun with their earnings after explicit instructions from his friend and Kevin Spacey lookalike, played by Brennan Brown, to absolutely, under no circumstances, gamble with the pile of money that is to be distributed to the crew. Alarm bells should be ringing for you to pay attention here.

What begins as a series of fun “I'll bet you five bucks if X happens” from the comfort of a snazzy corporate suite high above the action quickly escalates when an absurdly wealthy gambler behind them decides he wants in on the action. Nicky's fatal flaw looks like it's gambling, like that might be the reason he keeps at the game, to pay off debts and stay alive among a den of sharks hunting him for what he owes them.

What follows is a thrilling, crowd pleasing sequence out of the finale to The Sting, but it's too coolly handled, too plotty and “gotcha” to be based in character development, and it serves no function as a determining factor for redemption during the caper in the second half of the film. It could be a meaty thematic piece for the audience to hang on, but Focus isn't concerned with anything besides entertaining fun. It looks phenomenal, like Michael Mann made a movie for the masses, with neon everywhere, saturated colors to highlight the attractive glamor of the stolen items and therefore the life they choose, and the aforementioned performances by Smith and especially Robbie, who announces herself as a superstar here. From the What Could Have Been Files, it chooses against exploring something deeper about humanity in favor of popcorn entertainment, but boy is that popcorn tasty.

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