What to Expect
For a film to have a standout writer-director duo to be associated with it, you’d naturally have a truckload of expectations to start with. Add the undeniably charismatic Will Smith to the equation, shake it up a few notches with the gorgeous Margot Robbie (About Time), and you’ve practically got yourself a sweet deal.
Except, what if the deal isn’t that sweet?
One would naturally have a whole set of reservations behind one’s mind for a current Will Smith starrer; that, especially post the colossal disaster that was M. Night Shyamalan’s (Unbreakable) After Earth – which Smith also incidentally wrote – would be a very reasonable emotive reaction.
The inclusion of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa – the team behind Crazy Stupid Love and I Love You Philip Morris – naturally gives the masses rooting for the movie good reason to be happy about. While Crazy Stupid Love broke quite a few stereotypes within the template of a mainstream romantic comedy movie type, I Love You Philip Morris was a romp in its own right. And to be honest, you wouldn’t expect Richard Linklater (Boyhood) – who directed the remake of The Bad News Bears, rewritten by the dynamic duo – to work with just anyone in the writing team, would you?
What’s it About?
Nicky (Smith; The Pursuit of Happyness) is a grifter – or in dumbspeak, a conman. A chance meeting with Jess (Robbie) leads him to take her in as an apprentice, till things suddenly turn to an abrupt end.
Three years later, their paths cross again. And it ain’t pretty.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Movies about grifters aren’t a groundbreaking new thing. With films like the Oceans series, Confidence, Catch Me if You Can and – more recently – Now You See Me having been immensely popular among audiences the world over, Focus was almost an easy bet for a film to be made. What Requa-Ficarra didn’t really count on this time was probably the emotional depth within the leading characters of the film. Don’t get me wrong, the movie looks wildly cool, with Will Smith upping the ante on his level of glib-talk, reminding one of the character he embodied in Andy Tennant’s Hitch – which worked for good reason.
Unfortunately for the duo, it’s Smith’s charm that runs the entire movie. That is too huge a burden for an actor to carry, unless – of course – you’re a perfectly cast Keanu Reeves in an unstoppably written and directed John Wick. The writing and direction, in its cry for coolness, loses out on one major standpoint every movie must have, and that’s emotion. Emotional relevance can surprisingly turn around disappointingly generic storylines – clichés abound – a hundred and eighty degrees, and turn them into movies people immensely care about. The characters here, unfortunately, are way too devious to get out of their shell of shallowness, which will cause the audience to stop rooting for any of them much, much before the 100-odd minute runtime reaches its wee end.
Don’t get me wrong: the movie’s quite a tolerable piece of work (keeping After Earth and its despicable aftertaste in context helps). It’s got oozes of terrific style, right from the picture perfect set-designs to the ol’ school visual feel of the film. Nick Urata (I Love You Philip Morris) delivers a soundtrack that’s in equal bits as electrifying as it’s groovy. Xavier Pérez Grobet puts for a stellar visual style, which pumps up the cool factor a few levels. High-speed recording on some shots allows for the makers to put forth a subtle shoutout to the film-noir genre. Jan Kovac makes some very intelligent edit decisions during the movie’s big events and deafening silences.
Despite it all, however, there’s a lot that’s amiss in a film that’s supposed to be equal crime caper as it would be a romance dramedy. For starters, Robbie and Smith have a very ill-directed chemistry. With each trying to additionally outdo the other, the screen had an awful lot of room to be set ablaze a la Jolie and Pitt in Doug Liman’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith. What it does instead is make us – the audience – feel like a dry spectator in their uninterestingly superficial business. There are a few comedic hits too, but they’re too far apart for anyone to expect much through the rest of it all. The most important of ‘em bunch of issues would probably zero down to the lack of a prime antagonist, which hits the second half of the film real hard. The argument some would place here would probably be an attempt to pull off a complete abhorrence of structure, thereby leaving the usual towering cop or kingpin out of the picture. Besides, you’d probably hold Rodrigo Santoro’s (Che) Garriga or Gerald McRaney’s Owens, but while the former’s not as menacing the film desperately tries to conceive through its dialogue, the latter has a payoff that’s both surprising and underwhelming, effectively rubbishing the whole buildup to the big reveal. And to top it all, for a film that’s a sharp hundred and four minutes in length, it sure feels longer than it should.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Will Smith hits the nail on the head with his performance as the suave conman. He’s equal cool as he’s vulnerable, and tries as hard as possible to sail an an ineffectively offset ship to shore. Margot Robbie oozes the kind of raw charm she wasn’t able to (for good reason) in The Wolf of Wall Street or About Time. This film shows her potential to move forward in performative dynamics. Gerald McRaney is terrific. You literally feel his cold demeanor toward the protagonists he’s facing, and he’s practically one of the few characters on screen who can successfully manipulate you to feel a certain way you’re needed to feel. Santoro’s an equally charming presence on screen, but his turn-for-the-worst during the film’s final moments comes off a little too undercooked. B. D. Wong’s hilarious cameo attains more sinisterness in the fifteen odd minutes of his role’s runtime than Santoro ultimately can handle in the entire film. The rest are great.
A particular well-filmed, well-executed scene shows a certain henchman preparing himself to crash into a car to effectively nab the people he’s looking to catch hold of. He grabs hold a neck support collar and a helmet, wears it to safeguard himself against the inevitability of a crash, crashes into the said car, walks out toward the crashed car, and points the gun at its stunned driver and passenger. The rhythm of the scene complements superbly with the subtlety with which the makers poke fun at scenes similar to this one. This definitely shows that makers Requa-Ficarra have still got it in them.
This movie, unfortunately, doesn’t translate to an entire showcase of their talent. A mixed bag of vibrant visual style, smooth performances and a convoluted, narrative, the movie ends up simply being a “cool” film, giving its protagonist – through Smith – enough room to display his coolness. Apart from the stylized shot-taking and interesting edit decisions, however – and with little emotion or direction to offer – the movie never quite takes off.
For a film that advises its viewers not to lose focus, it sure loses a whole lot of it. Shame.
Take a peek
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