Despite its never lose focus catchphrase, unnecessary tangents and underwhelming reveals make Focus a somewhat unfocused, though still enjoyable, viewing experience.
After a botched con job brings Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) face-to-face with one of the world’s greatest thieves, Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), the small time pickpocket is inducted into a well-organized team of hustlers – who, together, pull off a $1 million score during the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Nevertheless, as the pair’s relationship begins to blur from professional curiosity into romantic entanglement, Nicky abruptly excises Jess from the group – leaving her with nothing but a cut of the Super Bowl score.
Three years later, Nicky is working a job in Buenos Aires, hired by international race car owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to con his competition into using an experimental (and faulty) fuel formula. However, just as Nicky is set to put his biggest (and riskiest) ploy into motion, he discovers that Jess is also in town – as Garriga’s personal liaison. Harboring regret over his choice to leave her in New Orleans, the reunion throws Nicky off his game, placing not only a lucrative deal but also his life in jeopardy, as the expert conman violates his number one rule: never lose focus.
Helmed by co-writers (Bad Santa)/directors (I Love You Phillip Morris) Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Focus is a solid conman drama – with a heavy emphasis on the drama portion. While the trailers make Focus out to be a heist thriller in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, Focus is more character study than heart-pumping con job. While the opening act showcases Nicky and his well-oiled team of thieves, once the characters depart from New Orleans, the movie jumps tracks and shifts into a pretty standard tale of former lovers forced to revisit past hangups while navigating a unique set of circumstances (in this case: dangerous billionaires). Still, a return-to-form performance from Will Smith, as well as another engaging turn from future Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie, ensures that even if Focus isn’t the most exciting (or original) con man story there’s plenty to enjoy, scene-to-scene.
As indicated, viewers who are looking for a mind-bending plot of backstabbing, clever twists, and intricate heists will likely walk away from Focus underwhelmed. In general, the success of the film is in layered, and often humorous, interactions among the principle cast of characters (and their respective actors) – meaning that while Focus shines in a number of scenes, the larger narrative is never as rousing or emotionally charged as its numerous film predecessors. In fact, the longer the movie goes on, the more the narrative spirals out of control – at the expense of its tone, characters, and overall integrity. To the point, for a story filled with manipulative liars and brooding antiheroes, Focus wraps-up in a surprisingly anticlimactic and preachy finale.
This isn’t to say that Ficarra and Requa failed in their efforts, because the dynamic between Nicky and Jess makes for captivating viewing; it’s just that given the con man subject matter, the filmmakers stumble back and forth between engaging audiences with intimate drama while leaning on half-truths and unreliable narration to fuel the movie’s twists and turns. Isolated scenes provide memorable moments but, after all the lies have been uncovered, Focus simply flounders in connecting all of its ideas into a cohesive whole. It’s style over substance and while the directing duo’s latest movie covers some intriguing concepts, if it weren’t for downright likable turns from Smith and Robbie, there simply wouldn’t be enough to provide worthwhile payoff.
Fortunately, Smith is in top-form for Focus – reminding moviegoers that, in spite of some recent missteps (After Earth and Men in Black 3), the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air still has the charisma to headline a film. It’s clear that Nicky was designed from the ground up to be a nuanced hustler and Smith manages to translate that charm to the big screen – even if the final movie somewhat muddles his layered portrayal as events unfold (by forcing him through a pretty thin narrative arc). Although, where Nicky becomes slightly less interesting as the runtime rolls on, his interactions with Jess become increasingly entertaining – as they each attempt to outmaneuver the other.
Following a downright scene-stealing performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie continues her upward momentum – holding her own with one of Hollywood’s most beloved, and talented, stars. Where the film recycles ideas from its con movie inspirations, the dynamic between Smith and Robbie never gets stale – culminating in a fun climax (in which act 1 story beats come full circle). Wolf of Wall Street may have showcased Robbie’s acting chops (along with her stunning looks) but Focus allows the actress more room to play – revealing that she can effortlessly switch gears from subtle comedy exchanges into moving drama. The interplay is especially effective in selling Focus as a tale of manipulative tricksters willingly engaged in an ongoing game of cat and mouse – even if the actual behind-the-scenes con isn’t as interesting as its participating players.
Since Focus is predominantly about the relationship between the two main characters, most of the supporting cast members get limited screen time; though, that doesn’t stop Rodrigo Santoro (300), BD Wong (Jurassic World), Gerald McRaney (House of Cards), and Adrian Martinez (American Hustle), especially, from chewing the scenery. It’s a quality cast, and while some characters are more layered than others, the assembled talent all get genuinely engaging moments in the spotlight.
Even though Focus isn’t the same movie that is being advertised in its trailers, there’s still plenty of slick style and crafty storytelling to maintain the interest of viewers who are willing to trade intricate heisting for witty bantering. In an effort to differentiate their film from earlier conman movies, Ficarra and Requa have created a hybrid con-drama that, even if it’s not the smartest or most innovative film, finds a fresh angle to explore the drawbacks of confidence (wo)man life. That said, despite its never lose focus catchphrase, unnecessary tangents and underwhelming reveals make Focus a somewhat unfocused, though still enjoyable, viewing experience.
Focus runs 104 minutes and is Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. Now playing in theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Focus episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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