I actually enjoyed Focus quite a bit. It’s a charming caper comedy which is perfectly content to be nothing more than that. It asks very little of its cast or its audience, only that they be themselves. And it’s a surprisingly honest movie, which, given the subject matter, is a little more ironic than even the silly title.
Will Smith hasn’t quite recaptured that effortless jug-eared smoulder of his earlier work, but he’s let a lot of his recent earnestness fall away for this one. His character is Nicky Spurgeon, a grifter who specialises in the long-ish-con; that’s about halfway between pickpocketing wallets (though he does some of that too) and heisting a retirement fortune in a single scheme. So he steals a lot, but not so much at once that anyone’s likely to notice. Anything else is “too risky”, he says. I’ve got no reason not to believe him. At the start of the movie he fakes being a renowned chef to secure a table in an exclusive New York restaurant, and while there he meets Jess – a beautiful young woman who asks Nicky to pose as her boyfriend so she can escape a keen gentleman at the bar. Five minutes in, and Smith is already playing three roles; Nicky, the chef, the boyfriend, though they’re all really just Will Smith, as this is the kind of part built around a star’s charisma rather than an actor’s craft.
Then there’s the character of Jess. This is the second time I’ve seen Margot Robbie work, and I still couldn’t tell you whether or not she can act. She makes a case for herself here though. Her part in Focus is an upgrade from the one in The Wolf of Wall Street, where she was only required to be the kind of woman who a rich guy might risk it all for. This screenplay (by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also direct) does a lot of the work for both leads, but it requires more of Robbie. She’s game to meet it head-on. Her comeliness is something a lazy director could leverage to ill effect, but I don’t imagine she’d make it easy for them. This isn’t a guileless bimbo performance. The sexual charisma is undeniably there, but the likeability and the easy charm don’t come pre-packaged with it – she’s working for those.
Nicky and Jess spend the evening together in that restaurant, and almost the night – until they’re interrupted by an armed man whom she says is her husband. It’s a setup, naturally, one which Nicky says he picked up on hours ago. Focus is pretty good that way. A lot of the comedy and drama comes from the fact that Nicky is usually miles ahead of everyone else, so you never know whether what you’re watching is genuine or being used to advance a scheme. Jess’s obvious hustle is the punchline early on, but the film is fair enough to her that you always assume there’s something behind those twinkling eyes we aren’t quite seeing. Again, a lot of that comes from Robbie.
Pretty soon Nicky has taken Jess under his wing and whisked her off to New Orleans, where he introduces her to his large-scale petty crime operation and his lewd sidekick (Adrian Martinez). This is where things kick into a higher gear. There’s a slick sequence in the French Quarter which sees Nicky’s crew swiping wallets and skimming credit card information through a series of distractions and elaborate handoffs. Another, perhaps the film’s best, has Nicky treating Jess to luxury seats at the Super Bowl game, where their silly time-passing bets are intruded upon by a Chinese businessman (BD Wong on scene-stealing form). It starts out harmless and inane, but the longer the scene lasts, and the more of the team’s Louisiana haul Nicky ends up losing, the less bearable the tension becomes. It might stretch plausibility to breaking point, but the payoff is so satisfying that you can only tip your hat in admiration.
Focus does that a lot – takes illogical plotting, even for a caper film, and cons you into believing that you care about it all. The twists are smart enough, and they’re woven into the narrative in such a way that you don’t feel cheated when they reveal themselves. There’s a playful sensibility too, particularly in how Ficarra and Requa occasionally take formulaic genre beats and spin them in a way you weren’t expecting. There’s a fun bit which takes a previously marginal character and uses him as the audience’s point-of-view for a pivotal sequence. You spend a large portion of the movie distracted by this kind of finesse.
Because of all this it’s harder to mind when things become even less plausible, particularly when the movie flips over to its B-side for the second half, heading to the ritzier climes of Buenos Aires in search of a compelling central con and a fearsome bad guy. It doesn’t end up finding either, but Argentina does play home to Gerald McRaney as the head of security for a racing team, whose owner (Rodrigo Santoro) has hired Nicky to help him fix races he’s likely to win anyway. McRaney stalks around onscreen, bristling with old-school masculinity and exasperated comic timing. Whenever he leaves a scene he takes the movie with him.
Focus is essentially two movies wedged awkwardly together, one set in New Orleans (which is superb), and the other in Argentina three years later (which is not). The second half just isn’t very good; not that the first half is flawless, any more than the second is an unmitigated disaster, but having to transition from one to the other, with all the lost time and swapping of focal points and audience anchors that entails, is a lot of hoops for an ungainly movie like this to navigate through. It certainly doesn’t help that the race-fixing plot isn’t particularly interesting, at least not when held up against the litany of well-executed cons we saw in Louisiana. All we’re really left with is the relationship between Nicky and Jess, which struggles to pick itself back up and start gaining momentum again.
I’m still not sure I buy Will Smith as a sexual figure, especially not with someone like Robbie, but there’s so much chemistry between them that it’s easy to forget they’re playing parts (and that one is half the other’s age). Their relaxed flirtation and mutual attraction is easily the strongest singular aspect of the film, but, like Smith himself, it needs a backboard. The love story works best when it’s kept at a shallow, glossy level, sublimated through the mechanics of conning and the directors’ lithe style of cinematography. When it stops being frivolous it falls apart.
Focus as a whole, though, while not exactly a return to brilliance for Smith, is nonetheless an encouraging step in the right direction – away from glum, listless nonsense like After Earth. It has problems in abundance, and some of them are in very damaging places, but when the tracks realign, Ficarra and Requa recalibrate, and the parallel halves straighten out towards the finish, it eventually gets where it wants to go.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.