Evan Slead ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant TV Editor
The dreaded January and February dumping grounds is typically when studios unload the films that they deem unworthy of a summer blockbuster or fall Oscar contender. There have been the rare exceptions to the rule like Taken and the more recent Kingsman: The Secret Service. Now you can add another to that list; the latest picture from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Much like the manner in how the film presents its plot points and dialogue, Focus is an experience that will contort expectations. Not quite a romance, too funny to be a full drama, but a few laughs shy of full-blown comedy, this film takes conventions and zooms in on the best moments. The performances are electric, the dialogue witty and robustly sincere, and the directing takes advantage of the premise to a top-notch degree.
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) has a life that many would deem unsuitable, or to be more exact, illegal. A con man that is always ten steps ahead of his target, Nicky has a built a life where money is just a tool and pushing the boundaries is a daily ritual. When young con Jess (Margot Robbie) crosses paths with Nicky, his wise ways rub off on her that leave not only a newfound skill set in the thieving world, but an attraction for him that runs deep. After performing one of the best cons of Nicky’s career, he departs from Jess to leave his life free from entanglements. Years later, the duo comes face-to-face and Nicky realizes this may be his last chance to take the one thing in life that truly matters.
Smith is equally charming and genuinely mysterious as Nicky. From his introduction, there are aspects to Nicky that are out of focus but just blurry enough to take note. Seemingly a man that lives life flying solo, he doesn’t allow himself to be outsmarted or duped by the typical romantic conventions. Enter in Robbie, one of the best new actresses to hit the screen in some time. She plays Jess with hints of naivety but enough gumption to allow her con schemes to feel completely believable. The pair together always gives the viewer the feeling that neither one is completely trustworthy, and yet they seem to say unabashedly honest secrets to one another. The romantic relationship formed works because of the vulnerability and guarded notes that both actors hit.
A difficult part of writing a film with twists comes in the set up and pay. There are several spins on the con scenarios depicted, starting small toward the beginning of the film and expanding by the final act. The formula that Focus uses gives viewers a chance to learn the play points of Nicky and Jess so that as each con unfolds there is a chance to follow along with their choices. However, by the climax of the film, it becomes unrelenting in its ability to subvert expectations that leaves the viewer only the option to sit back and enjoy (no simple task). Much like the cons pulled in the film, the melding of intrigue and plain fun is phenomenal. On a simpler note, whenever the dialogue seems to fall into stereotypical or hokey, the writing flips it around on itself to show that it can rise above predictability.
Ficarra and Requa take full advantage of the title Focus for filming style. Several shots of the camera attempting to focus in and out on a character gives the film a stylized feel without sacrificing quality. The moments are earned and give the viewer a visual queue that a con is reaching a boiling point and the characters are feeling the heat. The transitions from one scene to the next are done with such subtlety and class that it almost feels dreamlike. For a film that is essentially one giant puzzle with fragmented pieces waiting to be placed together, the flow overall is surprisingly smooth that doesn’t pull away to make a point.
The fear for Focus is that it will not gain as much attention and notice as it deserves coming in February. It’s a clear message that from now on release date shouldn’t have to matter. Quality has won here and should be given its just desserts. The focus here; this film will take any demographic and delight beyond expectations.
Overall Grade: A