There should be movies like Focus every week. It’s a stylish and amusing film with glamorous actors, memorable supporting players, lush settings, and lots of twists and turns. Will Smith plays a successful con artist who chisels people all over the world. He’s amused when a two-bit newbie played by Margot Robbie tries to run a hustle on him—amused and also powerfully attracted, because Margot Robbie may be the most beautiful woman to grace the screen since the 1960s heyday of Natalie Wood and Julie Christie.
He’s the Paul Newman to her Robert Redford, except that there’s sex involved.
Like Redford in The Sting (1973), Robbie wants to learn the “long con”—the big-money score that not only requires stealing from a very rich and dangerous person but also ensuring that said person never knows he’s been had. Smith pooh-poohs the long con: “We’re in a volume business,” he explains as he and a crew of 20-30 people set up a thievery ring during the week of the Super Bowl in which they work together like a corps de ballet in beautiful synchrony on hundreds of small scores.
But—and this is the graceful aspect of the otherwise workmanlike script and direction by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra—you’re never quite sure whether Robbie might not be conning Smith or what Smith is really up to with Robbie. And he may not be as dismissive of the long con as he says.
Now 46 and a decade past being the biggest star in motion pictures, Will Smith is not the rough-edged force of nature of his early years or the weird martyr-type he became after he stopped playing his kid roles. He downshifts here. And in playing it cool, he is as smooth as anyone has ever been on screen. He’s really a joy to watch.
Robbie is not only an exquisite camera subject; she gives every sign here, as she did in The Wolf of Wall Street, of possessing real comic chops and an underlying core strength. She’s too tough to be winsome, but she gets you on her side somehow. There’s something new about her.
Requa and Ficarra clearly studied the classic caper pictures and learned the importance of having a vivid secondary cast. There are two terrific turns here. An actor, heretofore unknown to me, named Adrian Martinez plays Smith’s heavy-lidded and heavyset partner in crime. And Gerald McRaney, a television star of the 1980s and ’90s who staged a dazzling move back into the spotlight as an enigmatic billionaire on the Netflix series House of Cards, pops up at the end as a tough-as-nails security guard, and in a few minutes’ screen time all but steals the picture.
Focus isn’t a world-class film by any means. It doesn’t reignite the caper-movie genre the way that, say, the Harrison Ford-Tommy Lee Jones version of The Fugitive reinvented the chase film back in 1993. It has nothing on its mind, and all the watch-stealing and con-man gimmicks grow a bit tiresome when you know they’re just movie-staged nonsense. Still, Focus doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not: It’s diverting, and even a little bit surprising, and it goes well with popcorn.
Yes, movies like Focus should be released every week. But they aren’t, because the sad truth is that movies like Focus don’t quite work any longer—and by “work,” I mean that they don’t make all that much sense as a central item in one’s weekly entertainment diet.
When movies were the best, or even the only, game in town in terms of large-scale entertainment, and when they didn’t cost anywhere near as much to attend, a good-but-not-great star vehicle could be a terrific diversion—the way you can have fun now when you land on some cute television program, like the cop-detective show Castle or the military-detective show NCIS, and find yourself happily diverted for an hour.
And that’s the problem. A happy diversion ought to be enough to make any movie a success; but for most people, it isn’t—not any longer. Most people hardly ever go to the movies; the trick to making a movie succeed is getting those folks to leave the house and give it a shot. (That’s the secret to the colossal triumph of American Sniper, which turned out an audience of people who haven’t been to a movie theater in years.) Focus doesn’t offer enough of a reason for a couple to spend 30, 40, 50 bucks on it, a large soda, and a package of Twizzlers. It was more than enough for me. But I have to admit, they pay me to go.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.