Ladies and gentlemen, Will Smith turns 47 years old this fall. He is the same age as Cuba Gooding, Jr., Molly Ringwald, Daniel Craig, Ashley Judd, Jim Caviezel, Naomi Watts, Eric Bana, and recent Oscar winner Patricia Arquette. Let that soak in for a second. Does he seem as old as any or all of them? Doesn’t he still seem like that young kid from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?” Just look at him in the trailer for “Focus.” That man is going to age as gracefully as Denzel Washington has. Just for fun and context, when Denzel was 47, he was making “Training Day” and “John Q.” Doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago?
Time will do that to you. Along those lines, let me ask you another question. When was the last time you saw Will Smith have fun in a movie or when do you last remember you yourself having fun at a Will Smith film? My answer is “Hitch” and that was 10 years ago. It’s been too long to be able to say that. Thanks to “Focus,” we don’t have to ask that question anymore. As my fellow film critic peer Tim Day would say, Will Smith just got his swagger back and it’s a breath of fresh air. Oh how much we missed it! “Focus” opens today at your Chicago and Chicagoland theater locations.
In the new sexy caper film “Focus,” Will Smith plays a veteran con man named Nicky who can talk and misdirect his way into or out of any situation. He’s the face-of-the-franchise leader of a vast team of fellow cons that target gullible tourists and big wigs at large public events. In the course of a week, Nicky and his tight-knit team can swipe, steal, fence, hustle, gamble, and extort up to seven figures where everyone gets a cut in the end. They thrive on the volume of small moves and avoid the big scores that bring undue attention and trouble.
On a night in New York, a talented young seductress and thief named Jess, played by Margot Robbie of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” catches Nicky’s eye and they cross gamesmanship paths. She realizes what he is, how connected he is, and wants in on the scores. Nicky sees promise and takes Jess under his wing (and his bed sheets) and shows her the ropes during a week-long series of cons at the fictional football championship in New Orleans.
From there, telling you anymore takes away from the fun of “Focus.” This is a movie all about charming your pants off with misdirection and then pulling the rug out from under its audience. Anyone who’s seen the kitschy fun of the likes of “Ocean’s 11” or “The Thomas Crown Affair” over the years, will know and appreciate this feeling. There is an unquestionably unique and satisfying viewing sensation that comes with witnessing a big reveal or twist after a grandly detailed setup and build-up. Really good caper films tend to deliver one really good payoff. “Focus” feels like it has about three of those and all are flat-out awesome with just a hint of heavy-handedness.
“Focus” is the third feature film from the writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. The duo previously impressed with the little-seen critical darling “I Love You, Phillip Mooris” with Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey and the stellar and greatly-seen romantic comedy gem “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” with Steve Carrel, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone. These two, though relatively new to the scene, know what they are doing to craft rich and invested stories with unpredictability. “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” proved four years ago that you can infuse twist and turns into a romantic comedy and create a winner. “Focus” has a big-time scale that should propel these two even greater heights going forward.
Margot Robbie raises her game here from being the arm candy of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” This is a showier and more active role for the Aussie stunner and she delivers side-by-side with Smith in her first co-headlining gig. Robbie is learning to turn heads using more than her looks. “Focus” is also filled with spunky little roles from Adrian Martinez (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”), Gerald McRaney (TV’s old “Major Dad”), and B.D. Wong (“Law and Order: SVU”). All three steal their scenes in a movie where everyone is trying to one-up everyone else.
Let’s bring it back to where we started. What makes “Focus” work as much as the writing is the enthusiastic performance and presence of Will Smith. The is Movie Star Will Smith and the Charming Will Smith. We haven’t gotten enough of that Will in the last decade. He hasn’t lost a beat and it’s a pleasure to see him regain his swagger and mojo. The exciting highs and lows of “Focus” were fun on their own, but Smith’s dashing stature and aura elevates all of it to another level of cool. Let’s hope it’s not another ten years before we get to see this version of Will Smith again.
Lesson #1: The definition of a “Toledo Panic Button”– This foreboding term is pure movie-created criminal lingo, but you’ll see what it is when you hear and learn about it.
Lesson #2: The immense volume of the con game— This too might be amplified for cinematic and dramatic effect, but the sheer volume and reach possible within the small con artist “industry” is scary and impressive at the same time. There is a generational tradition to the con game with skills that are passed down and now boosted by modern technology. Even for a movie, this is fascinating and astounding.
Lesson #3: The linkage between focus and misdirection— By this film’s titular definition, misdirection only works with two layers of focus. One part is the con man’s eyes on the prize to not lose sight of the goal or the limits. The second part is the con artist’s ability to gain the focus of their mark for the misdirection needed to pull the wool over their eyes. This can happen in long cons over time with infiltration and research or in seconds with a timely distraction and quick lift.
Lesson #4: The science behind trust— The third lesson on focus has a backbone rooted in actual science. Your brain can only pay attention to so much and humans have a natural disposition to judge and seek trustworthiness. Trust lowers that instinctual heuristic problem-solving practicality. Belief, honesty, and benevolence can all be measured and everyone is susceptible. The smart con artists know exactly how to tap into that and prey on those suggestions, tendencies, and triggers. Once again, it’s all fascinating and astounding.