Focus Plot Summary:
When smalltime grifter Jess (Margot Robbie) fails to trick professional conman Nicky (Will Smith), she begs him to train her. As the cons, the set up grows more complicated, their relationship turns romantic and each struggles to understand what is and isn’t true.
Focus has had a long journey to the screen. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (the pair who made dual writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s last project Crazy, Stupid, Love so winning) were originally set to star. Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart replaced them, but before production began, Affleck pulled out citing scheduling conflicts, and Stewart left for reasons celebrity gossip websites are probably still debating. Now, it hits theaters with genuine movie star Will Smith and relative newcomer Margot Robbie in the lead roles. This is their first collaboration, but it won’t be their last: they’ll both star in DC Comics’ Suicide Squad, set to start filming in April. If they’re as good in that as they are in this, then sign me up.
Good screen couples aren’t easy to come by. Sometimes the chemistry just doesn’t happen. Take Fifty Shades of Grey‘s leads, for example. Not so here. Smith’s last few films have consisted of action bombs or surprise cameos and his last romantic comedy role was 2005’s Hitch. He’s back to maximum charm thanks at least in part to how well he and Robbie play off of each other. Despite their 22-year age difference, they connect in that old Hollywood bantering way where a smile and a clever turn of phrase were enough to begin a romance. From the moment she saunters up to him in a restaurant, the pair draws the audience and each other right in.
The scene that really sells their relationship, though, comes at the end of that initial meeting. After much prodding, Nicky agrees to teach Jess a few tricks to help her improve her pick pocketing skills. The directors’ slick, intimate shooting style and the lushness of New York City with fresh snow on the ground give the scene a sort of sensuality, and the playful, competitive tone of it sets up their entire relationship. Nicky steps into Jess’s personal space and flirts as he steals her things left and right. The key, he explains, is drawing the person’s focus away from the fact that they’re being tricked. The love story itself serves the same function in the film.
Like the best con movies, Focus works because its goal, in part, is to trick the audience into thinking it’s one kind of movie and then surprise us when it turns out to be something else. Focus pulls that trick more than most. It changes direction so many times it’s almost like three movies in one. The plot is intricately and elegantly designed—much like the expensive watches the characters love stealing. If anything, the movie might suffer from one twist too many. By the end, you’ve been fooled so many times that it’s ultimately difficult to trust it. Whatever catharsis or sense of completion it provides is somewhat lessened by the lingering question of how much of what we saw before was real.
But that’s just it, none of it’s real. Jess and Nicky are just two figments of the movie’s imagination played by two fantastically talented and beautiful movie stars. That’s kind of the point of movies and it’s exactly why Focus is such a fantastic time at the theater. It’s slickly shot and plotted and the two leads are so strong that you’re willing to buy into whatever con they’re currently working. So go ahead, let them fool you, I promise you’ll have a blast.
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over every detail of America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture and celebrity obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to. You can find her risking her life by reading comic books while walking down the crowded streets of New York City, having inappropriate emotional reactions at her iPad screen while riding the subway or occasionally letting her love of a band convince her to stand for hours on end in one of the city’s many purgatorial concert spaces. You can follow her on Twitter to read her insightful social commentary or more likely complain about how cold it is at @MarisaCarpico. =========================================================================================================