**1/2 (out of 5)
February 27, 2015
Will Smith as NICKY
Margot Robbie as JESS
Adrian Martinez as FARHAD
Gerald McRaney as OWENS
Rodrigo Santoro as GARRIGA
BD Wong as LIYUAN
Studio: Warner Bros.
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
BY KEVIN CARR
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Ironically opening against a film about bringing people back from the dead (which would be the fun but formulaic horror flick “The Lazarus Effect”), the new movie “Focus” attempts to revive the career of Will Smith.
Yeah, I know he hasn’t been gone for that long. He had a nonsensical cameo as Lucifer in the beautiful-looking but tone-deaf “A Winter’s Tale,” and his last big starring release “After Earth” was only released a couple years ago (though he was a supporting cast member to his entitled and irritating son Jaden in that film). But “Men in Black III” came out almost three years ago, and that was supposed to be his big comeback to massive box office. It did well enough, especially from an international level, but it played a bit soft stateside.
Now, Smith is diving back into films. With his upcoming “Suicide Squad” costar Margot Robbie, he is trying his hand at a more grown-up drama. It’s a definite departure from his standard sci-fi action blockbuster he had led to fuel his box office legend in the late 90s and 2000s.
It is nice to see Smith do something different than what he did in his heyday. In a strange way, “Focus” feels more like a movie that would have been released in the mid-90s at the start of his career. It’s not a massive mainstream draw, and the themes seen in the movie cover some different territory than he is used to with films like the “Men in Black” series, “I Am Legend” and the seriously flawed “Hancock.”
Still, it’s not a home run for Smith, and it is quite possible that he and Robbie are meeting each other while she’s on her way up and he’s on his way down. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony to witness when looking back at this film ten years from now?
The story is a pretty standard con man film. Smith plays a talented and often shown as impossibly-good con man. He takes the young and gorgeous but naive Robbie under his wing, and in typical Hollywood fashion, he can’t help but also bed her and emotionally manipulate her while he shows her the ropes of how to swindle and downright steal from people.
After completing a major job, the two part ways, only to run into each other in Buenos Aires years later. Smith’s character is angling a major con at the Grand Prix, and he starts to fold her into the plan when she shows up as a girlfriend of his mark.
Con man movies can be hard to nail because they often overplay the deal. This is the biggest problem with “Focus” as a whole. The cons are too good, too over-the-top, too pervasive and too unbelievable. Where a film like “Oceans Eleven” plays off the almost ludicrous nature of putting together a perfect con, “Focus” tries its hardest to insist this is actually possible. What results is a plot that is needlessly convoluted and at times hard to follow. There are also so many twists buried in the story that the audience is conditioned to believe nothing even while it’s guessing most everything that happens throughout the film.
Smith and Robbie have decent chemistry, but it’s not perfect. They aren’t the sizzling screen couple the movie wants them to be, and a lot of this results from Smith struggling to share the screen with someone with possibly more presence and who is more attractive than him. It’s easier to play against Tommy Lee Jones than to have a game co-star who can easily steal his spotlight.
In the end, “Focus” isn’t a bad movie. It’s the kind of film you could swerve into on HBO on a Saturday afternoon and waste your time with. However, it’s hardly a movie that demands to be seen. Had this been a stepping-stone project for Smith in the mid-90s, it would have been perfectly fine. However, with his box office track record, I expected more from Will Smith but never got it.