Tuesday, January 5, 2016
The Top Ten Films of 2015: #6
When "Focus" came out in February, I called it the most entertaining major-studio movie in over a year.
What a bounce-back for Will Smith from the debacle of 2013's "After Earth." He's getting Oscar buzz for "Concussion," but he began to resuscitate his career here, as big-time grifter Nicky Spurgeon, who presides over a team of dozens of con men, pickpockets and shills trailing a nationwide wake of missing handbags, billfolds and luggage. They're in New Orleans for a Super Bowl crawling with poor saps waiting to be separated from their money. The part's a perfect fit for Smith, who could sell ice to an Eskimo with some slick talk and a flash of that million-dollar smile.
Into the picture sashays Jess (Margot Robbie), an apprentice who specializes in boosting watches. She's eager to play at higher-limit tables, and Nicky takes her under his wing and into his five-star hotel bedroom. The Australian Robbie is stunningly beautiful, with a freshness that separates her from the throngs of L.A. 10's, an iconic quality that portends an enduring career. Or, as my friend Harvey asked after the movie, "Where has she been all my life?" Co-writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have made Jess every bit Nicky's equal in intelligence, ambition and duplicity, and Robbie wears the comedy as effortlessly as her sex appeal.
"Focus" is structured as a series of set-piece cons comprising one overarching con. It's like a meta crossword suite, where you solve the puzzles and then try to figure out what they're actually about. Meanwhile, the cons themselves are great fun, and while some may be implausibly elaborate, we can accept them because it's a movie. (They're the kinds of cons you'd stage if you had a $50 million budget to score $25 million.)
Smith's performance has some meta stuff going on too. Part of his enormous appeal (at one time, he was the most bankable star in the industry) derives from our desire to know what lurks behind the sly grin, the jiggy and the jive. Some of "Focus'" best moments are the quiet ones in which Smith trades on that mystery, tantalizing Jess (and, by extension, us) with suggestions of vulnerabilities that may or may not exist. (Fortunately, some do.) Smith is doing real acting; there's an emotional depth to his work here that's been absent for too long. In a way, the apocalyptic failure of "After Earth" works to his advantage as well; it posed a genuine threat to his status and raised the stakes for his next vehicle. That desperate edge befits Nicky, a mountebank for whom any false move could spell curtains.
Ficarra and Requa wrote "Bad Santa." They know from funny, and have filled "Focus" with laughs. They're also to be commended - in collaboration with cinematographer Xavier Grobet - for limning Nicky's world of 1000 thread-count linens, luxury suites, and souped-up racecars so sumptuously. (Even the fake football game convinces.) Jess is our surrogate, and we have to see what she sees and covet what she covets. Shout-outs are also due to Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney and BD Wong for strong supporting performances.
"Focus" will be remembered for two things: bringing Will Smith back from the brink, and making Margot Robbie a movie star. It's a perfect marriage of stars and roles, with Smith and Robbie sharing sparkling comic as well as romantic chemistry. Above all, it's fun from start to finish, terrific value for money.