There are certain things you come to expect when delving into the world of con-artistry. As much as the genre gives way to creative writing, it’s forever restricted by some tropes that are pretty much mandatory. The thrill of the reveal is always going to be the film’s biggest gun, but when the audience is already hard at work looking for the twist, it’s hitting those familiar beats where the movie gets its chance to shine. While Focus does fumble a lot of its moment-to-moment material, it gets it right in all the places that count. It’s a bit by the numbers and perhaps a even a little uninspired, but the truth is con artists are such a fun subject that even Focus‘ safe approach is enough to guarantee a good time.
Served up by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the writing/directing duo behind Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Phillip Morris), Focus takes us through two key periods between veteran con artist Nicky (Will Smith) and up-and-comer Jess (Margot Robbie). The first half of the film sees Nicky bringing Jess on as his protégé after she tries and fails to make a mark of him. The second picks up in Buenos Aires, three years after they part ways, where Jess turns up as the lover of Nicky’s new boss Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) and complicates all the plans he’s put in place.
Despite the film’s R rating in the States (which I’m still struggling to wrap my head around), Focus isn’t a movie that dives in to the dark and gritty side of crime. This bright and glossy caper is very much a product of Hollywood; the world of career criminals as presented by good-looking people in expensive hotel rooms. But given the film’s focus (sorry) is really on Nicky and Jess’ relationship with the con-artist world serving as an exciting backdrop, the lavish presentation and cinematic swagger feels right at home tonally. Focus’ romantic backbone may disappoint some hoping for a more cerebral experience (especially in the final act), but it comes down to taste on whether it’s the charming characters or having the rug pulled out from under you that matters most in a movie like this.
Which isn’t at all to say that Focus doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeves. There are plenty of surprising moments sprinkled throughout, with one particular misdirect that got me hook, line and sinker. Even if you’re someone who finds the film’s final reveals a little underwhelming, I can almost guarantee you won’t have seen them coming. As is fairly typical of the genre, a lot of Focus‘ best ideas are presented with exposition and flashbacks, which always comes off as a little lazy, but the thrill of the reveal always trumps the unimaginative delivery. There is one exception, where Ficcara and Requa give the audience some credit and let it play out on screen, but sadly this sequence ends up being a little too obtuse and they still end up spelling in out for you a few scenes later.
The real problem with Focus exists in the spaces between all its whimsical thieveries. With the film’s hotel-lobby vibe already robbing it of its credibility, the so-so dialogue, hammy comedy and some odd choices with the extended cast threaten that suaveness a film like this thrives on. Focus shoots for fun and energetic, so it’s a huge problem that so many of its comedic beats either fall completely flat or are eye-roll inducing for anyone out of high school (which is apparently everyone, given that aforementioned rating).
The script could have used a bit of sprucing up and a very obvious Margot-Robbie-is-actually-Australian joke should have been thrown right out, but the issue is just as much about delivery as it is the material. The best example is probably BD Wong’s Liyuan, a legendary gambler Nicky and Jess cross paths with, whose over the top performance very nearly derails what could otherwise be one of the film’s best sequences.
Big Willie himself unfortunately doesn’t quite bring the magic we’ve come to hope for. Smith’s a born lead and there’s plenty of charm left in his tank, but something is definitely waning in his performances of late. His heart just doesn’t seem in it, especially when dishing out comedy. That said, even a slightly wooden Will Smith can outshine most, and he certainly delivers during Focus’ more intense moments and whenever the film leans on its strong romantic bent (though I can’t imagine what additional motivation he might have had in those scenes).
Robbie definitely turns in a more consistent performance and is deserving of a bit more of the spotlight than she received in this film. There are very obvious flaws to Jess as a character; a blonde bombshell whose clear talent and intelligence are explored only so as to be in service to Nicky’s story. While the lazy design of her character will no doubt annoy some viewers, Robbie doesn’t allow herself to be used just as a prop. She has all the charisma of Smith at his best and nails all the humour and drama that seemed so problematic for the rest of the cast.
Now, while the more personal revelations Focus decided to hang its hat on were still enjoyable, where they decided to take the characters afterward was another thing entirely. The third-act reveals were certainly surprising, but all made perfect sense in context of everything we had seen up until this point. Once the dust settles, we are treated to a coda that, while a lovely way to end the film, feels in total contrast to the Nicky and Jess we’d just spent 100 minutes getting to know. To the very end, Focus is a film that opts for style over substance, but luckily there’s just enough of both to make it worth your time.