One of the most cutting things you can say to anyone involved in filmmaking is, “I saw it on an airplane.” Anyone who makes a movie wants you to watch it, obviously. They just might prefer you do it of your own volition, not when you’re trapped 30,000 feet in the air, turning to their art only after blitzing through the inflight magazine’s crossword, sudoku, and a list of (among) The Best Dermatologists in America.
But should you ever let it slip to someone’s face that you watched their movie on the back of a headrest, in a dimension that may have been modified to fit the screen, there may be one thing you can say to salvage it: “..and it was still really good!” If stale air and staler pretzels can’t dim the lights on an actor’s performance, they’re not just airplane good, they’re good good.
Based on a trans-Pacific viewing of the 2015 romantic comedy/con artist drama Focus, Margot Robbie is good.
By now, this hardly qualifies as a hot take. The pride of Dalby, Queensland has become a megawatt star and head of her own production company, with a filmography blending Oscar-worthy biopics (I, Tonya), stunt-filled tentpole action films (Suicide Squad), and her latest, Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-worthy stunt-filled biopic tentpole Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.
But back then, I’d never seen her before. I was late to the party with The Wolf of Wall Street. All I could think was, “who is this lady stealing this movie from Will Smith?”
It’s not easy to overshadow Will Smith (though she would repeat the trick the following year with Suicide Squad). Robbie’s performance represents the film’s most brazen heist. She doesn’t play the main character in Focus, but she’s the main attraction, its center of gravity pulling in all the other performers and plot points. As up-and-coming con artist Jess Barrett, Robbie’s dynamic with Smith’s seasoned scammer Nicky Spurgeon veers from adversarial to romantic to honor among thieves.
Robbie puts Smith in a few unique positions. For all his charisma, he’s really isn’t known as a romantic lead. Some of his most celebrated performances—I Am Legend, Ali—depend on a solitary greatness, where Smith’s surroundings and co-stars could melt away and leave the film not much worse for wear. His most memorable co-stars are arguably aliens and robots. In Focus, he stands toe to toe with a live human woman, and she knocks out the champ.
As the credits and the snack cart rolled by, I said, “I don’t know who that is, but I know she’s a Movie Star.” The flight attendant said “Sir, I asked if you’d like to purchase any snacks.”