‘Focus’ Review: The Hitch is Back


The problem with Will Smith, if there even is one, is that there is absolutely no problem with Will Smith. As a leading man, he is the consummate movie star: funny and sexy, believable yet somehow approachable. And yes, he really can act. He was marvelous in Ali. But we don’t necessarily want him to. Sometimes we just want him to be an affable charmer in a movie that doesn’t suck.

So it’s been frustrating to watch this generation’s heir apparent to Cary Grant fall headlong into wrongheaded high-concept dramas (Seven Pounds), forgettable sequels (Men in Black III), embarrassing vanity projects (After Earth) and someone else’s embarrassing vanity projects (Winter’s Tale). The last five years have not been kind to Will Smith, but with a little luck, that’s all about to change. He’s found the perfect starring vehicle in Focus, a romantic heist thriller that plays to all of his strengths.



Focus stars Smith as Nicky, a suave flimflam man who decides to take a skilled pickpocket but amateur con artist named Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing. And for half the movie, that’s the whole plot. Jess learns the ropes of the modern confidence game, and Will Smith proves that nobody – absolutely nobody – can make exposition sound more fascinating than he can. Watching and listening to Nicky explain the new and improved rules of swindling leads to rapid fire gags and pay-offs that could have gone on for at least another hour before wearing thin.

But the plot must eventually make itself known, and inevitably Nicky and Jess – whose shared romantic chemistry is worthy of a Nobel Prize – find themselves on the outs. An ambitious racetrack con could bring them back together, tear them apart or… as is common in these kinds of twisty, turny Mametian shenanigans… reveal that we never really knew who they were or what they were actually doing in the first place.



The con artist genre is a tried and true one, often to a fault. Too many of even the best examples of the scam film fall back on one, all too predictable twist: that everything was a con, the whole time, and that the mark was always the audience. Focus is too clever for that. It keeps the twists coming at a fast pace so that the joy comes from watching the characters trick each other, not in being tricked ourselves. And that in turn leaves the audience exposed to more chicanery, lulled into a false sense of security so that Focus’s handful of genuine surprises really do seem to come out of nowhere, and expertly satisfy.

And at the center of it all is Smith, matched exquisitely by Margot Robbie, playing the hell out of a character who always seems genuine even when he’s lying his head off. He’s a movie star essentially playing a movie star, a man whose attraction rests entirely in his ability to seduce and connive. Thank heaven for that. Will Smith is at the top of his game in Focus, finally back in a movie that deserves him. It’s an exciting, funny and sensual film that earns all of its spoils. 


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.