TV Writer Chris Goodwin (China, IL) Talks Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus

During the cinematic dumping ground that is the winter, a Will Smith movie is indeed a welcome thing, even if doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel.

Last week, I saw Grown Ups 2 in a movie theater.

This is something I never really planned on doing. I was invited by a friend to a screening of the film hosted by two comics, Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery, who watched Grown Ups 2 once a week for a year as a part of their podcast The Worst Idea of All Time. For their final time seeing the film, the comics decided to host a viewing party at the Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles. For some reason, this interested me. I knew the movie was going to be bad, but part of me needed to see just how terrible. And why.

There are many “worst things” about Grown Ups 2. But what struck me straight off the bat is how depressing it is when movie stars just check out of the movie that they are getting paid an obscene amount of money to be in. There are people in the movie that I used to like watching, but seeing them here made me want to move away from Los Angeles and go back to writing obituaries in my hometown (which I used to do, and yes, it was that bad). Adam Sandler looks like a man hoping he can pull a Looper and take out his younger self before he makes Click and almost every other film after. And I bet that in between takes Chris Rock was going through the existential crisis that would lead to last year’s Top Five, which is arguably the best movie he’s ever made.

Now contrast the leads in Grown Ups 2 with Will Smith, who for my money is one of the last good movie stars we have left. Ever since he claimed his throne as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I was down. Last year, I was one of the writers on an episode of the Lucas Bros. Moving Co., which we basically turned into a tribute to Will Smith. It was on that job I realized that to a certain generation, Smith might be the movie star.

Yes, he’s made some strange choices in the past few years (his cameo in Winter’s Tale) and his off-screen antics have been a little weird, too (didn’t he slap a reporter in France?), but the dude is good. Really good. He’s so good that once my girlfriend and I watched I Am Legend at a restaurant for a half-hour with the sound off. And this was after we’d already eaten and paid the check. Will Smith gives whatever movie he’s in his all, even after so many years of superstardom. Not all the films work, for sure. Some are good, some are bad, and some are After Earth. But it’s been a minute since Will Smith has been in a movie, and I missed him.

This week brings the return of Mr. Big Willie Style himself with his first lead role in almost two years: Focus, a con-man thriller written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who previously wrote Bad Santa and directed 2009’s underrated I Love You Phillip Morris.

I’m not saying that Smith does Daniel Day-Lewis-level work in Focus, or that the film itself reinvents the genre wheel, but he’s locked and loaded here and does exactly what a movie star should do. Playing longtime con man Nicky, he keeps you invested and engaged. It’s a different kind of role for Smith, but it suits him, and he’s easily able to smuggle in his patented Will Smith charm without it feeling stale. And he’s nicely paired with co-star Margot Robbie, last seen stealing scenes from Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. She was good in Wolf and here she proves to be a perfect sparring partner for Smith. Chemistry between the leads makes or breaks a film like this, and Robbie and Smith have it.

As for Focus itself, on a scale of “ineffective” to “effective,” let’s just say it’s mildly effective. Ficarra and Requa guide the performances and the tone of the movie well, and it’s a handsome, well-crafted package. I wasn’t a big fan of their previous movie, Crazy, Stupid, Love, but Focus seems likes a better fit for their sensibilities. They know the genre, and for fans of the gambling or con-man story, there are some pleasures to be had here. Like any decent plane or hotel movie, though, it doesn’t stick in your head for long after you see it.

One of the most problematic things about Focus, one that for me keeps it from becoming good rather than merely decent, is the movie’s second half. Focus has two big con sequences in it and, without really giving anything away, the best of these goes down in the middle of the film. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting things that happen later; it stays mostly compelling and never gets boring, and there’s a really good car crash scene that occurs toward the end. But one can’t help feeling that the climax of Focus kind of already happened, and the film suffers for it.

Focus may not be on a par with great Smith high points such as Bad Boys or the first hour of I Am Legend (sound or no sound), but during the cinematic dumping ground that is the winter, it will do. It will also be interesting to see where Smith goes as he heads into middle age. Personally, I’m hoping he recaptures some of his Six Degrees of Separation mojo and chooses more sophisticated roles. But, knowing my luck, he’ll probably team up with Adam Sandler to play dentists or K-Mart employees who take a “man-cation” to Hawaii because their wives have given them a hall-pass or some shit. (I can already hear “Uptown Funk” in the trailer.)

But because Will Smith is in it, I’ll still probably see it, and way before its ironic Cinefamily screening.

Chris Goodwin is a comedy writer/producer living in Los Angeles. Chris has been recently working as a TV staff writer, for shows such as China, IL, for Adult Swim, and Lucas Bros. Moving Co. and Major Lazer, for FXX.