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‘Focus’ proves an uneven but fun experience

Will Smith is one of the most charismatic actors in the world, and one of the best movie stars of this generation. So why has he not been around more? We got the very entertaining “Men in Black 3” way back in 2012, but that was his first starring role in four years, after the terrible “Seven Pounds.” After “MIB 3,” he failed to launch his son’s action career with “After Earth,” and mostly vanished from the screen, besides a very funny cameo in “Anchorman 2.” If you couldn’t tell, I am a fan of Smith’s, and was even more confused about his career choices when I saw the trailers for “Focus,” which looked messy and lacking a plot. After seeing the movie, I was thankfully only partially right.

“Focus” is the story of Nicky (Smith), a veteran con-man who finds a protégé in talented pickpocket Jess (Margot Robbie). The two grow very, very close, but after a huge score in New Orleans, Nicky abandons Jess because there’s no room for love in his world. Three years later, Nicky is helping corrupt businessman Arriga (Rodrigo Santoro) sabotage his rivals in a formula one race, when he runs into Jess, apparently in a relationship with Arriga. Nicky now has to deal with his not-so-buried feelings for Jess, and try to pull multiple layers of con artistry, all while not being caught.

First things first, “Focus” is all over the place. For the majority of the first 45 minutes, it can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be, inserting strange bits of wacky humor in with dramatic music and dialogue. There are a million characters with names and personalities who appear at once, and Nicky randomly switches from lone wolf to group-leading mastermind, apparently able to run a massive criminal operation all in one room in one building without being ever bothered. The big “three years later” title delivers us to the final two acts of the movie, but appears nearly an hour into the movie. Smith is great in his role, but Robbie is decidedly one-note, and the fact that Nicky is a mostly somber character doesn’t help the film when it drags.

But despite all these problems, I ended up having a pretty good time watching “Focus.” It isn’t a particularly great movie by any means, and the script could have cut its first act by a solid 20 minutes, but once it gets going, the characters are interesting enough to keep your attention. Like Nicky himself, the plot always has something up its sleeve, and after a while I was just waiting for each twist to one-up the last. Santoro is hilarious and over the top, and Smith delivers the stupidest of one-liners so charmingly that I couldn’t help but chuckle. The ending wraps everything up in a really satisfying way, and by the time the film was over I was happy I had seen it. The main problem is that “Focus” takes too long in its setup and never really decides if it wants to be gritty like “The Bank Job” or silly like “Ocean’s 11,” which is frustrating.

Still, the cinematography is great, and director team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa pace the story very well, throwing in some really fun scenes and lines. The supporting cast is also fun, particularly Adrian Martinez and an amazing cameo by B.D. Wong, while the soundtrack fits the film really well. So overall, “Focus” is a big, silly mess that probably could have used one more edit in the screenwriting process, but it is quite a good deal of fun if you need something to do on a rainy afternoon.

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