This week, I’m 0-for-2 when it comes to my early tagline scouting for the new releases.
I imagined the new Will Smith vehicle, Focus, as a lost-weekend adventure from Rusty Ryan’s (Brad Pitt’s Machiavellian right hand con man) past, some interlude between the big Ocean’s star-studded team-ups intent on taking down whatever big target had bothered George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. I assumed Focus would be darker toned, grittier maybe (think The Grifters minus the incestuous twists), with a dry and dangerous wit about it. The R-rating signaled a willingness to delve into edgier territory.
What I got instead was something far more familiar, but no less welcome, I suppose. Focus is all about its movie star – one Will Smith – aiming to convince us that he is still, in fact, Will Smith, the movie star. Stars, as we all know, are conning us; much moreso than performers who accept the “actor” label, because the star is willingly engaging in deception and distraction, as a game. They never want us to forget or ignore that we are watching a “star” at work. They aren’t trying to slip inside the skin on a character. The plan is to simply use their incredible charm and immense swagger to portray a heightened version of what audiences want to believe they are like. This effort focuses our attention on the allure and appeal of said “star” so that the filmmaker can use their sleight of hand to deflect our expectations.
Smith has gotten stuck “acting” of late (playing second fiddle to his own son in After Earth and a shady & devilish cameo in Winter’s Tale), seeking to invest in character (and by extension, make us invest and engage with these characters, which means he has paid less attention to his own star power, thus allowing the potential to wane a bit. Focus brings it all back into, well, you know, focus.
And it mostly works. You can’t take your eyes off Smith and co-star Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as the deliciously deceptive duo – with more on the way thanks to a later team-up in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad – who pinch and pilfer wallets and watches as part of a co-ordinated team of professionals, run by Smith’s character, that will make everyone re-think the idea of security in crowded environments. Smith is the face and the brains of the operation, the ultimate insider and natural born con-man (who we are told learned the trade from his father and his father’s father). But something happens when Smith encounters the rookie Robbie, a blinding beauty in need of refinement. He feels her out (and up) during an early sequence that seeks to match the easy sensuality of that trunk scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. The Focus frame doesn’t quite live up to that standard, but it certainly earns respect in the game.
I found myself constantly coming back to Clooney, as I was watching Focus and even moreso now as I’m wrangling my thoughts. Clooney, the movie star, teases us with a more rugged charm offensive that owes much to older, earlier generations of movie stars. He looks and feels like he belongs to that by-gone era of the leading man, whereas Smith is the epitome of what a modern movie star should look like. Eternally youthful, maturing gracefully into this mid-career period (which means he still has the ability to play “ageless”), but aware, from a professional standpoint that he should seek the “star” roles while they are available to him.
The movie lets him down a bit, by not giving him enough of the improvisational jazz and kink (the illicit thrills) a thrilling con job should. We should always know that there’s never any doubt that our heroic star will win in the end, but we want a moment’s hesitation and fear that “something” could happen that might cause them to blink. Focus doesn’t truly want us to worry that deeply. It is all about restoring the luster of Will Smith, and it walks away with a win, in that respect.
The weekend B-side, in terms of the new major releases, The Lazarus Effect had me thinking it was offering something along the lines of Pet Semetary meets Flatliners, when it turns out the aim here was more akin to a re-animated Lucy with nods to the new dark side (Paranormal Activities, Insidious, the usual suspects in the current horror franchise sweepstakes). Too bad it pretends to want to be something more though. It aspires to spiritual and philosophical depth – questions surrounding scientists playing God or whether God can be explained away by science – but it wanders around the same tired desolate corridors that every other would-be killer does and kills and kills again for the same no-good reasons.
The thing is, I realize now that I’m willing to follow Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies) and Mark Duplass (The One I Love) into the dark, eager to see where the flickering trail takes us. They’ve hooked me with their indie credibility that promises to make even standard studio shenanigans interesting. What I should be waiting for though is a chance for them to return to their roots, far away from studio genre fare, where their brand of quirk, character, and brains reigns supreme.
If I could access and use more of my brain, either before or after a death experience, I would like to think I might want to do something more profound than just kill others. In the New Testament, we never truly find out what life was like for Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the dead, but I want to believe he took that second chance and lived hard. Why waste it, right? (tt stern-enzi)