The crowning moment of most caper films is the reveal of the long con. Someone, somewhere has left something up their sleeve, and the payoff needs to surprise not only the other characters in this movie, but the audience too.
As it turns out, the only real con in Focus, starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, is that we’re watching a romance instead of a heist… or perhaps, to put it more simply, that any of this was ever going anywhere in the first place.
Focus follows Nicky “Mellow” Spurgeon (Will Smith), an experienced conman who has perfected the pickpocket and turned it into big business. After deceiving his way into a swanky restaurant, he meets a young wannabe grifter named Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), who, after an unsuccessful attempt to pull one over on him, asks to join his crew.
The two take to New Orleans, home of one of those off-brand movie Super Bowls – you know, the ones with the distractingly unrecognizable teams playing – and, along with the rest of Nicky’s team, rob tourists and gamblers like it’s a sport.
Nicky and Jess start to get close as they bond over the allure of their criminal exploits (aka being the assholes who stole your credit card number). However, with the film needing to be movie length, Nicky inexplicably leaves her when the job is over. It’s some crap about conmen never falling in love or something… basically a riff off of Robert De Niro’s character in Heat, except without any of what made that movie interesting.
Anyway, since the love story in this movie is in no way earned, it was hard to be surprised (or care) that much when he leaves her. Oh, you’re week long relationship ended abruptly? I’m sure there’s a middle schooler somewhere who can help you get over that.
But that aside, Focus at least had my attention up until that point. You had to think one of these characters had something up their sleeve, right? That budding way too fast relationship has got to be part of some con in a movie about professional conman.
Wrong. And that’s Focus in a nutshell. It can hold you for a little while, mainly because we’ve been trained to expect something clever is coming – that it’s all part of somebody’s game – but once you realize how hollow this movie really is, there’s no going back. It’s all flash and no sizzle.
Not that that flash doesn’t have its moments. There’s definitely an appeal in watching these cons go down. The Ocean’s Eleven of this world exist for a reason – the art of tricking people is quite fun.
But would I say Focus does that better than any of the other heist films that came before it? Not really. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen in some form or another a million times before. And when it comes to the film’s big heists – which I probably don’t need to say are sort of important – the movie skews towards the status of underachiever. In fact, it starts to downright strain credibility.
Which adds to another problem – even in its least plausible moments the film is obsessed with its own cleverness. It seems to bask in every smug moment it thinks it’s pulled a fast one over the audience. Perhaps that’s just a staple of the genre and maybe Focus’s only crime was adopting it, but – and in all the wrong moments – these heists feel like they work out just because some screenwriter said that they did. That’s not super rewarding.
Really what Focus ends up trying to do is coast off Will Smith’s charisma. And with no intended knock on Smith – I don’t know who could have saved this one – that’s just not enough. It takes more than a few flashy named cons and a cool guy delivery to make up for a plot this dull.
Opposite Smith, Robbie doesn’t do all that much better, though in her defense the writing should probably take a brunt of the blame for that. Her character is pathetically weak – her whole purpose just to stare wide eyed at Smith as he explains to her (and by proxy the audience) just how clever these schemes are. Right until the end I was hoping for something more for Jess, but that payoff never came.
What was left was just some bland romance that never quite justifies itself. I don’t know if it’s a lack of chemistry between Smith and Robbie more than they’re characters are just written as that couple you wouldn’t want to be seated next to in a restaurant… or at a fake Super Bowl.
The truth is, a film like Focus needs to be a lot more fun than it ended up being. The characters are rote, the plot unfulfilling, and the comedy portion of this self-proclaimed dark comedy is sorely missing. Plain and simple, Focus is a dud.
Final Score: 1.5/5