Focus (2015)

(Video on Demand, June 2015)  Con-man romantic comedies (con-rom-coms?) are, by now, such an established sub-genre (The Thomas Crown Affair(s), Duplicity, Confidence… and that’s from memory alone) that they can work on recognition rather than surprises, even if surprises are the point of the film.  We already know that such con-rom-coms will end with the romantic leads driving off into the sunset, that we’ll witness elaborate triple-cross confidence tricks, that the entire thematic structure of the film will be the tension between greed and love, and the trust issues in all human relationships, whether they be romantic or criminal.  So, when Focus comes along, it feels as if we already know how it’s going to play out, and a proper appreciation of the film can be boiled down to basic questions: Are the lead actors sympathetic?  Is there some romantic chemistry between the leads?  Are the confidence tricks interesting?  Does the film hold our attention from one moment to the next?  Fortunately, Focus succeeds even when it’s not being particularly original.  The showcase sequence of the film, a high-stakes gambling sequence in a stadium luxury box, may not be original, but it clicks perfectly.  The film’s two biggest assets are Will Smith, playing his usual brand of charismatic confidence (his best such role since Hitch, and a substantial return to form after the After Earth debacle), and Margot Robbie, making another serious case (after The Wolf of Wall Street) as to why she’s more than Today’s It Girl: her role is a tricky mix of deception, sexiness, vulnerability and mixed agendas, and she hits all of the right notes.  With both of them playing off each other, Focus feels like an old-fashioned movie-star vehicle, far more worthwhile for its slick execution than any conceptual boldness.  And it works.  Sometimes, behind the analytical façade and the numerous references to trends and industry terms, the critic abides and simply repeats the obvious: it works.

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