Man, you have to have a sure-fire winner here right? A film about “the con”, that subset of the heist movie genre, the kind of environment where you can dazzle the audience with sleek visuals and cool characters, sex appeal and ingenious plotting. The co-directors of I Love You Philip Morris at the helm, so there’s a pedigree there. Throw in a target the audience wants to see humiliated, a handful of exotic locations and even a half-decent script, and you’ve got yourself a solid experience you can sell to people. And, on top of all that, in this instance you have both Margot Robbie, one of Hollywood’s super-bankable leading ladies right now, and the, if we’re being fair, iconic Will Smith as your leading man. Sure, Smith has had a few duds in the not too recent past, but he’s one of the industry’s brightest stars for a reason. On the face of it, he has more than enough charisma and talent to pull off the sort of suaveness and attractiveness that the lead in a con film should have.
So, why oh why, did it all go horribly wrong?
After seeing through her unsubtle attempt to grift him, legendary con man Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) takes Jess Barrett (Robbie) under his wing, teaching her all he knows about “the con”, with their relationship eventually moving to another level. But the world of the con is a dangerous one, and soon the two are caught up in different plots and schemes, unable to really know if they can trust the other.
Focus starts well. Will Smith’s Nicky easily cons his way into a reservation at a fancy restaurant, fitting in to the opulent surroundings like a consummate gentleman thief. Margot Robbie’s Jess gives him the sort of tantalising opportunity that letters to Penthouse dream of, only for her angry husband to show up waving a gun. But Nicky laughs it off, having seen the whole thing coming, one of the oldest scams in the book. He’s carefree, confident and utterly unflappable, pausing only to give the hapless hucksters some advice on how to perform the con properly before leaving.
That’s what the opening of any con film should be like, and it’s what any main character in a con film should be like either. But the warning signs are there in abundance if you want to see them. There’s awkward humour inserted where it shouldn’t, some clunky dialogue and, worst of all, zero chemistry between the two leads.
And since Focus is supposed to be about an intense love affair in the middle of the con game, you need that chemistry. And Smith and Margot simply do not have it at all. The atmosphere between the two is deader than dead, awkward and unimaginative, thanks to some poor performances and poor writing. There should be an immediate spark between the two, something to explain why they are so drawn to each other, then and later. But there just isn’t. That je ne sais quoi feeling of passion or desire or whatever you want to call it, it simply doesn’t exist. No Bogart and Bacall here, just two actors going through the motions, without any of the back and forth, is-each-of-them-on-the-level? sort of interaction you’re hoping for, ruining any potential fizz whenever the next comedy line comes up and falls flat. It’s a shame too, for a lot of reasons, not least that an interracial romance like the one depicted here is so rare to see onscreen.
But even when these characters are not together – and large parts of the film seem to fly by with Smith wandering around on his own – things don’t improve, largely because both Nicky and Jess are such boring people. Nicky should be a suave, interesting and charming Lothario type, but he gets no back-story beyond the basics (rough upbringing, absent father figure etc), no proper motivations and no real explanation as to why he seems to want to risk everything that he has for this woman who has wondered into his life. Jess is worse, an even more bland blank slate, who stumbles around the narrative after Nicky, getting sucked into his sphere and letting the male character do most of the plot progression. There’s precious little about the leading two, in terms of characterisation or relationship, that got me interested in Focus. It carried on into a one dimensional and unexceptional supporting cast, full of forgettable people and hollow placeholders.
With that vitally important element of the production falling flat, Focus desperately needed its actual plot to be something worth following, but the directors couldn’t pull that off either. Focus is bizarrely segmented in two, almost like they had an idea for a franchise but then smashed the two plot ideas together (what can’t help but wonder if having two directors was a factor in this), and the end product is more lackadaisical than likeable. There’s always going to be twists and turns in a con/heist film, but their doing well to limit it to a couple, maybe a little one nearer the start and a big one near the end. But Focus can’t help itself, and in lieu of having anything interesting to say or depict in its plotline, prefers to simply throw twist after twist in the direction of the audience, like M. Night Shyamalan on steroids. It gets to truly ridiculous levels near the end (see below) and the truth is that they are either not all that hard to see coming, or so intangible that you’ll be furrowing your brow trying to understand what just happened. The multitude of twists, like a multitude of anything in a movie, simply serves to dilute the effect of their appearance. It’s an unreliable narrative taken to a laughable extreme.
Beyond that, there are a few things about Focus that actually do work, all of them in the first act, where Jess is introduced to the proper con game and how to perform it. There is something fairly surreal about all of the perfectly executed thefts and misdirection’s that we see performed, but also something fascinating as well. Seeing Nicky outline just how he and his compatriots make money off what they do – and a lot of it at that – was reminiscent of some of the narration from stuff like Goodfellas, where the proper voiceover gives you a bird’s eye glimpse at the utterly seductive potential of crime. Jess gets her only effective evolution here too, learning how to grab things off idiotic tourists and gradually moving up and up on the ladder.
But things go off the rails rapidly following these sequences. A set-piece scene at the Superbowl drags on for way, way too long, and not even B.D. Wong’s involvement can stop it from becoming stifling in its mundanity, with the closing “twists” being as unsatisfying as it was hard to stomach. The way the film splits after this point, with a jarring time and situation jump, largely undoes any of the positve things that the first act was able to string together. The second act sets itself up well enough, with the sudden arrival of Rodrigo Santoro and Gerald McRaney as clients/targets of Nicky, the film doing a credible job of essentially starting from scratch half way through the running time. But Jess’ reappearance in the narrative limits what they can bring to the table, as Focus becomes this subpar relationship dramedy, focusing (ha!) on the worst aspect of its production. The film potters on through to an unconvincing and elongated finale, ruining any of the tension it has barely managed to create with more ill-timed comedy moments or unpalatable twists.
But for all of the flaws with the plot, it is still those main two that drag Focus down to the level o0f a bad film. There is one other requirement for films of this nature, and for any film really, and that is for the audience to care about the characters. I didn’t care about Nicky or Jess. They were empty, pastless people, with no kind of enticing interaction between the two of them and with too many twists and turns in everything they did to make me realty care about their end goal or whether they achieved it or not. That, and there was little to redeem, make them sympathetic to us, as thieves with hearts of gold, or at least thieves robbing nastier people. With this absence, you view the backslapping between Nicky and Jess with a very dubious eye, and Focus is nowhere near good enough to get away with telling such a story. Where films like the aforementioned Goodfellas overflowed with interesting criminal characters you might not sympathise with overtly, showing that it can be done, Focus just gives you two crooks and just sort of hopes you’ll be onboard with their plans.
The acting talent on display here should be enough to save Focus from any of its other flaws, but it just fails to engage. Smith’s on a bad run over the last few years: Middling efforts like I Am legend and Hancock have led on to poorer fare like Seven Pounds, Men In Black 3, After Earth and his bizarrely underwhelming cameo in Winter’s Tale. Maybe Smith is just sort of checking out after a career replete with the sort of success that other Hollywood players can only dream of. Certainly, he just seems bored by the script and surroundings of Focus, only rarely imbuing the Nicky character with the sort of gravitas that he needs. Looking forward to cashing that paycheck, Smith sleepwalks through scenes with Robbie and scenes on his own, with the required emotional development of the main character going largely a begging.
I think Robbie is a bit better. She seems much more interested anyway, maybe because she isn’t in a position of career safety like Smith is. In early scenes with Smith and in learning the con trade, Robbie gives us some enthusiasm and verve. But she’s fading out by the end too: only in a brief moment where she demonstrates how much better she’s gotten at the grifting game does she actually seem to go beyond what is expected of her. Even if I didn’t like the character she played all that much, she was still much better next to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but fails to reach even that average height here. Focus isn’t a great film when it comes to its lone female character.
The supporting players aren’t doing all that great either. Santoro is drab, a far cry from the scene stealing he did in 300 and its prequel/sequel. McRaney is a hit more noticeable, but only insofar that his character seems to be an old person stereotype, decrying everything that the young people are doing. Adrian Martinez is Nicky’s weird friend who seems to be inhabiting the actual comic relief role, but without much comedy.
It’s a pretty enough film, and you can trust the Ficarra/Requa team to direct a professional production. That being said, there are moments when some elements of the visual side of things start to distract – maybe intentionally. Nicky has to have a conversation about a big con next to a Formula 1 race track, has to go about undertaking his plan in a glitzy nightclub, has to visit and partake in a multitude of festivals and ethnic markets whereever one pops up. There are better moments though: Nicky trying to manage Owens’ search around his apartment has a nice comic language to it in terms of its visuals, and the earlier scenes setting up the art and function of the con are a great example of crime montage in action. While it all adds the right blend of colour and exoticism in Focus, you just sort of wish that the same care would have gone into other parts of the production, which can’t break out of the feel of being a fairly typical example of the sub-genre in its direction, between the bright lights and the dull, repetitive music that accompanies everything.
The script, from the directing duo, is only alright, and that’s when it is at its best. Maybe it’s the really bad delivery that does it in, but there are plenty of moments when you think that Ficarra/Requa have lost the run of themselves, especially when it comes to how really crass humour is suddenly dropped into the middle of conversations. Whether it is Nicky suddenly talking about boobs or Owens’ magic taint, or Garriga complaining about the world’s longest period during the finale, it all just adds up to a very MCU-esque attempt to just always be dropping jokes at every moment. While you’ll get a few cheap laughs that way, you won’t make any lasting impression. The script is just generally weak really, without the sort of humanity and sparkle to it that such a story requires. Nicky and Jess don’t talk like people in their situation should talk, and the bad delivery of the lines is the final awful cherry on top.
Some brief spoiler-talk follows.
-Twist! She was trying to scam Nicky in the beginning! Twist! They were scamming B.D Wong the whole time! Twist! Nicky is playing Garriga and Owens! Twist! Nicky sells his secret info to everyone for cash profit! Twist! Jess doesn’t know Garriga at all! Twist! Nicky’s been using Jess against Garriga! Twist! Nicky gets shot! Twist! The shooter is his dad and he’s not going to die! Twist! The dad takes off with all the money! Twist! Twist! Twist!
-That entire bit surrounding the number 55 and B.D. Wong’s gambler was beyond words for how crazy it was. Such an elaborate and elongated set-up in the film for such a lame explanation.
-Owens turning out to be Nicky’s dad was just about the only of the many twists that was actually in any way clever, though it reminded me all too much of the end of Mel Gibson’s Maverick. It did seem like the film over-elaborated on itself in keeping that whole plot line a secret though. So, Nicky knew that Jess would find a way to hide herself on the balcony?
-Weird, random shot of a horseless jockey at the track, squatting next to a railing. What the hell was that?
-When Nicky talks with Garriga and Owens at the race track, they have to actually cease their conversation whenever one of the cars pass. That was odd. It was like they were trying to create tension, but it just made everything seem stilted, almost like we were looking at outtakes. Also, who puts a restaurant next to a race track?
-We don’t get any real closure on Garriga, who is apparently the films’ primary antagonist. Nicky does him over and basically gets away with it, but it doesn’t really seem like he will be affected all that much. Con/Heist films need a good antagonist to focus on, and Focus doesn’t have that.
-The last shot leaves Focus and its characters in an alright place – provided Nicky isn’t dying of any unseen internal injuries that is – but the sense that we’re watching two star-crossed lovers limp into the sunset isn’t really created all that well. The overall film just could not sell that relationship to me.
Focus really wants to be Oceans 11, right down to the feeling that there were two movies that the production team wanted to make. But it has little of that kind of cinema magic in it. A lacklustre script makes it all very hard work for the cast before we really get started, and neither Smith nor Robbie are doing good enough regardless. With a plot that is asinine at its worst and a flaccid romantic pairing, Focus falls far short of what it could have been when you look at its individual parts. I Love You Philip Morris it is not, and one cannot help but wonder if Will Smith is done making credible movies. Robbie might still have a chance to make it good, but not in this. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).