Written & Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
The sense of time is not quite lost in a film like Focus, which features once mega-star Will Smith, who was once Hollywood’s most bankable star because of his undeniable charisma and personality on screen. Smith has been in the business for twenty years now, going from rapper to TV star to blockbuster A-lister, and through that time he has seen his career evolve and grow, but in recent years the decline has begun, punctuated by the utter failure of After Earth. However, with this new film, Smith strives to regain that charisma, and he finds it…in the form of his up and coming co-star Margot Robbie. This unexpected occurrence is more a testament to Robbie on screen spark than it is Smith’s fading star, but the fact remains, Margot Robbie steals this show.
Playing an experienced, aged con man, Nicky, Smith has a chance occurrence with aspiring con artist Jess (Robbie). Nicky takes Jess under his wing, and under his bed sheets, as the two team up with Nicky’s own team in New Orleans to scam the masses assembled for a major sporting event. But as the con progresses, so too does the relationship between the two criminals. But in the world of professional crime, there is no room for love, so something has got to give. Directed with a sleekness that matches the world of excess seen in this lavish world of theft and gambling, Focus plays out with a certain sheen and glimmer, glossy like a photoshopped picture to cover up the flaws and reveal the artificial beauty behind a thing.
Writer/director team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa come to the table to play, that’s for sure. They have conceptualized quite the storyline for a con job movie, featuring a premise ripe with potential to explore new and interesting facets of not only the con genre, but also the characters behind them. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to the potential set out by Ficarra and Requa, and instead seems satisfied living in the realm of safe, standard plotting and romance. The film begins to feel very big early on, in the best of ways, and only ends up being quite average in its ambition. I always feel it is a bit unfair to judge a film based on what it isn’t, but in this case I feel justified in critiquing the mediocrity when the filmmakers had the chance to do so much more with the framework they created.
Where the film falters perhaps most is the relationship between the leads. Nicky and Jess show signs of chemistry, but it is never lasting. In addition, the romance begins to overtake the film and drive it down a path it never felt comfortable traveling. The sweetspot of Focus is in its ability to create a good con. The first half of the film plays out in a serial fashion, taking us from one con to the next, each with higher stakes and more exciting circumstances than the previous. Ficarra and Requa, to their credit, create a few outstanding scenarios for their criminals to live in and flourish by doing what they do best. That’s where this movie works, so it becomes unfortunate when they lose focus of that strength later in the film.
Margot Robbie really is, far and away, the best thing about this film. For what it’s worth, her performance manages to transcend the perhaps questionable decision to move the film into a more romance-centric plot in the second half of the film by working on both levels. She portrays Jess with just the right edge and rawness that she deserves as an independent woman trying to be a successful con-man and as a woman who is perhaps falling in love. Smith on the other hand, while not making any wrong movies, never gets the ball rolling with Nicky enough to come out of the shadow of Robbie and Jess. With its smooth soundtrack and visuals, fun confidence scenarios, and a stellar performance by Margot Robbie, Focus is a satisfying and entertaining film, just not one that will be significantly memorable.
*** – Good