With Will Smith playing its polished and professional master of larceny, and Margot Robbie playing the fledgling grifter who becomes Smith's mentee and lover, Focus is so contrived, so ridiculous, and so phenomenally entertaining that while watching it, you'd almost think a new genre was being invented right before your eyes.
It's a con-artist comedy that frequently keeps you in the dark, yet you're neither punished nor insulted when you eventually see the light. (Take note, Now You See Me.) It's a heist thriller less interested in heists and thrills than eccentric grace notes and even more eccentric personalities. It's an adult romance in which its sexually charged stars are allowed to be as playful as children, and appear to be having more fun than most children. In short, Focus is easily definable yet also not definable at all, except as the type of smart, confident, unpretentious, totally winning screwball drama that Hollywood should be supplying way more frequently than it does.
Not that you'll necessarily believe a word of it. As Smith, Robbie, and assorted cronies indulge in high-end scamming and low-end swindling in New Orleans and (after a daring, three-year chronological jump) Beunos Aires, Focus' narrative - which I'm purposely keeping mum about - frequently defies belief. But you know what else defies belief? Smith's and Robbie's charisma and chemistry. The stars are so magically synchronized in their teasing flirtation, so sleek and funny and sexy, that succumbing to the movie is like slipping into an extra-bubbly hot tub set at just the right temperature; you can't tell if it's the heat or the happiness that's making you sweat. (Smith has never before approached this level of Cary Grant-style panache, and nothing about Robbie's frisky but repetitive turn in The Wolf of Wall Street suggested she was capable of such beguiling lightness of spirit.)
Yet while the stars dominate the picture, they don't overwhelm it, because Focus is also teeming with incidental pleasures. The camera gliding alongside Smith's team of merry pickpockets, which is seemingly half of New Orleans, as oblivious Super Bowl attendees are freed from their watches and wallets. B.D. Wong, in the juiciest role of the 1988 Tony winner's long screen career, as a peculiar Chinese billionaire taking advantage of Smith's gambling addiction. A brilliant deception that's not only scored to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," but that actually makes the song an accessory to the crime. Adrian Martinez as a zaftig co-conspirator demanding his 9 a.m. steak. The most unexpected, frightening gunshot movies have delivered in years. Gerald McRaney, witheringly hysterical as a grumpy enforcer railing against the Twitter generation. I could go on and on, but why spoil the surprise(s)? Glenn Ficara's and John Requa's previous writing/directing effort was 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love. I'm crazily, stupidly in love with their new one.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT
Director David Gelb's fright flick The Lazarus Effect concerns a medical-research team, led by Mark Duplass, that invents a serum capable of reanimating deceased life forms ranging from a pig to Olivia Wilde, and for a pretty-bad horror trifle, the first half is actually pretty good. It's never more promising, however, than during the opening credits, where individual title cards are awarded not only to the generally terrific Duplass and Wilde, but the inventive, always-welcome character actors Evan Peters, Amy Aquino, and Ray Wise. (Can we hope that Twin Peaks' imminent return means more precursory face time for Leland Palmer and company?) Unfortunately, Aquino gets merely three minutes on-screen. Wise, playing a Big Pharma smoothie who's lit like the devil, gets one. Peters is basically there to drop incredulous asides and smoke an e-cigarette that's apparently filled with weed. And Duplass and Wilde, sadly for them, are forced to stick around for the duration of this increasingly silly, senseless, overwrought endeavor, one that trashes your initial goodwill by turning into an unholy hybrid of Pet Sematary and Lucy. (Once resurrected, a CAT scan reveals that Wilde has access to 100 percent of her brain, meaning, of course, that she's now telekinetic. Still waiting for movies to adequately explain that particular cause/effect.)
There's some nicely sustained tension early on and the leads make a good, comfortable match, and Gelb and the animal's trainer have done exquisite work with Rocky, the cataracts-ridden dog that's brought back to life. The image of Rocky, with his sight restored, standing motionless on Wilde's bed and staring at her while she sleeps will make you think twice about ever again snoozing alongside your pet. (Hopefully, though, it's not a pet you brought home from the lab immediately after reanimating it because, y'know, what could possibly go wrong?) But the second a pop-eyed Duplass starts playing Dr. Frankenstein, which is midway through the film and roughly 60 seconds after Wilde perishes, the Lazarus Effect enjoyment substantially diminishes, as we're repeatedly bludgeoned with predictable jolts, risible dialogue, lame dream imagery, and incessant genre clichés. (Yup, the black guy - poor Donald Glover - dies first.) Only Wilde emerges relatively unscathed, and appears to be having such a good time as a malevolent, back-from-beyond weirdo that she may as well be winking at the camera. When she actually does wink at the camera, the moment is almost redundant.
DEEPSEA CHALLENGE 3D
If you can't stand waiting for James Cameron to release his next three Avatars, or simply can't stand waiting for the man to do anything movie-related, boy, are you in luck! The Putnam Museum's latest edu-tainment is National Geographic's Deepsea Challenge 3D, and it's 45 minutes of more James Cameron than you can shake a stick at. Watch James, billed on-screen as "National Geographic explorer-in-residence," descending to uncharted depths in the Deepsea Challenger submersible! Watch James, while technical malfunctions threaten his sub, handling the danger with the sort of stoic panic usually reserved for hearing, "And the Oscar goes to ... your ex-wife for The Hurt Locker!" Watch little James, in a re-enacted scene, pretending he's an underwater voyager inside a cardboard box!
It should be stated that directors John Bruno, Ray Quint, and Andrew Wight do appear to have more on their minds than Cameron's ego. We're treated to engaging information - delivered by James Cameron! - on the 1960 Mariana Trench expedition that inspired the filmmaker's 2012 descent, a reasonably thorough primer on deep-sea safety precautions, and even some fleet, comprehensible explanations for the causes of earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. (The script is full of evocative factoids, such as the info that the Mariana Trench is so deep that you could place Mt. Everest on the sea floor, stack four Empire State Buildings on top of it, and still not reach the surface.) Yet while the sound design is exceptional and the underwater vistas awe-inspiring, we're given very little concrete understanding as to why this particular dive is happening, and despite a climactic title card revealing that 68 new species of oceanic life were discovered during the trek, the doc's whole point seems to be solely about the fulfillment of Cameron's childhood dream. (It's hard to shake the feeling that the movie only exists so Cameron could at last be the hero of his very own big-screen adventure, complete with a fretful yet supportive wife played by Cameron's own fretful yet supportive wife, the retired film actress Suzy Amis). Deepsea Challenge is impressive, but it isn't terribly involving, and it finds its star a bit unable to stop reminding us who he is. During one dive, Cameron muses, "And I thought Titanic was as deep as I could get." Eh, it wasn't that deep.