BY RYAN MILOWICKI
You might not guess from my penchant for terrible comedies, but I do rather enjoy movies that make me think. There’s something unique to the medium of film which allows a story to veil important details while setting the table for climactic and game-changing revelations. Too many films use this concept to slink into “Gotcha” territory, but every now and then you’ll see a film that carefully builds its world and subtly drops its hints along the way, justifying the buildup and leaving the audience thinking long after the credits roll. Despite their obvious flaws, movies like Now You See Me and Danny Boyle’s Trance were extremely entertaining to me for that very ability to keep me on my toes while still enjoying the ride.
“This is a game of focus,” Will Smith’s character Nicky says early on in the aptly-named Focus. Since he’s describing the intricate choreography of expert pickpocketing, I took him at his word and settled in for what I imagined to be a predictable yet fun 100 minutes of banter between Smith and Margot Robbie. But by the film’s second act, I began to realize that the con was ever so seductively being played on myself and the rest of the audience too. Focus goes above and beyond what it needed to be, giving us a surprisingly intricate mindbender while still soaring with the charm that’s been lacking in so many of Will Smith’s recent films. The end product is a stylish and pulpy jaunt that glides through seamlessly with a winning combination of never taking itself too seriously and firm confidence in front of and behind the camera.
As mentioned before, Focus examines the labyrinthine relationship between a veteran con man (Smith) and his deceptively skillful ingenue (Robbie). Split into two acts set three years apart, the film feels like a series of vignettes (in a good way), each of which contain their own payoffs while setting the stage for a cryptic finale. I spent the majority of the first half hour anxiously triple-checking my pockets to make sure my wallet was still there, so suffice it to say that the movie’s depiction of manual theft was tantalizingly effective. As the stakes increase steadily throughout the course of the story, so too does the skill of the protagonists, dragging us further down the rabbit hole and tempting us to forget to think along the way. But viewing Focus with a cautious and vigilant eye will reward you in the end, making so many of the interesting directorial and plot choices along the way make more and more sense. It’s the rare movie that gives you an equally enjoyable experience whether you think it through full bore or if you shut off your brain and let the story develop.
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