“That’s what you get when you hire a con man.”
As much fun as it is to watch clever, cagey characters try to outsmart one another on screen, the real appeal of movies about con artists is watching filmmakers try to pull the wool over the audience’s eye. It’s an especially tricky proposition when you consider that — thanks to the Internet — moviegoers might be more sophisticated than ever in terms of knowing how movies are supposed to work. (Or at least *thinking* they know how movies are supposed to work.)
For example, I imagine a good amount of amateur cinematic sleuths started trying to guess the twists and turns in Focus as soon as the trailer popped up on YouTube. But in addition to attractive stars and eye-catching scenery, this stylish caper also has some effective tricks up its sleeve.
“You never drop the con, never break.”
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is an accomplished, third-generation con man. Early on, we see the con artist version of a meet cute when he crosses paths with Jess (Margot Robbie), a sexy newbie who asks Nicky to teach her how to properly scam and rob people.
The first half of Focus plays like a mixture between an Ocean’s movie and Smith’s own Hitch, as Nicky simultaneously teaches Jess the tricks of the trade and integrates her into his well-oiled crew for some lucrative scheming in New Orleans. This portion of the film peaks with a terrific, extended scene at a big (conspicuously non-NFL licensed) football game that involves Nicky, Jess, and a comically intense high-stakes gambler (B.D. Wong). The sequence vacillates between being funny, dramatic, and scary before it’s topped off with an exhilarating payoff. The good news is this is the high point of Focus; the bad news is there’s still about an hour’s worth of movie left to go.
“I thought I was ready to work…then the girl walked in.”
Much of the rest of the film plays like a more conventional romantic drama in which a down-on-his-luck sad sack tries to win back his ex. After splitting from the rest of his crew — including Jess — Nicky takes a job in Argentina working for an uber-rich race car owner named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Nicky gets quite the jolt when he sees Jess on Carriga’s arm. Can Nicky put aside his complicated feelings toward Jess long enough to finish the job? And is Jess working some sort of con on Carriga or Nicky? (Or both?) (Or neither?)
These are the sorts of questions that will likely pop in your head and get your gears going for much of Focus. To help accomplish this, you need stars as appealing and magnetic as Smith and Robbie to get you engaged enough for you to care in the first place. The underrated part is these performers also need to be able to hold your attention on what’s currently happening on screen, so your mind doesn’t drift and become obsessed with guessing what’s going to happen next.
It’s been a while since Smith used his outsize charisma to play a life-sized character. (He’s been too busy running around fighting aliens, trying to make his kids movie stars, and berating Russell Crowe.) Smith brings his weighty swagger to Focus. Since we’re used to seeing the actor play heroes, it’s hard for us to totally see Nicky as a bad guy, even when he does truly lousy things. He’s matched quite well by Robbie, who — following her breakthrough in The Wolf of Wall Street — has officially held her own opposite two of the world’s biggest male movie stars. So far, the actress as proven to be smart about the way she plays dumb. Jess is supposed to be an ignorant newbie in the con game, but Robbie’s spark as a performer always allows for the possibility that there’s more there.
The two stars — who will re-team for Warner Bros.’ adaptation of Suicide Squad — have strong chemistry, but Focus was originally conceived as a vehicle for a different pair. Writing-directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa originally intended the project to be a reunion for their Crazy, Stupid, Love. stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart(?) were subsequently attached before Smith and Robbie signed on. Although the starring role is malleable enough to allow for some ad-libs from Smith, it doesn’t fit him quite as snugly as Nicky’s wardrobe. (Nor as well as the show-stopping bikini Jess wears in Buenos Aires fits Robbie.)
Maybe it’s due to this being Smith’s first R-rated starring vehicle since 2003’s Bad Boys II. Despite some F-bombs and at least one startling fit of violence, neither the filmmakers nor their star seem totally willing to abandon the lighthearted hijinks. The result is the film’s darker second half, which ends up feeling like the watered down version of a grittier movie and like somewhat of a bummer compared to everything that came before it. It also lacks the nimbleness and propulsive musical rhythm of the New Orleans section. What it does have is some amusingly grumpy work by Gerald McRaney as the suspicious head of Carriga’s security team, and the return of Adrian Martinez’s crass Farhad, a member of Nicky’s team and the lone holdover from the movie’s first half besides Smith and Robbie.
Focus makes for a breezy, lively option during what is traditionally a dead zone in the movie calendar. Naturally, the final act has some swerves that you may or may not see coming. It’ll largely depend on how hard you’re looking, even though Ficarra and Requa’s script overly telegraphs one such twist. (Nicky is speaking to the audience as much as he is to Jess whenever he’s doling out wisdom.) For the most part, the filmmakers — like their wily protagonist — do a good job of making sure the audience looks where they want us to look.