Written and Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Focus doesn’t really show audiences anything new, but it does provide some breezy entertainment for a winter afternoon.
The story centers on Nicky (Will Smith), a con man that works big events with a team of other confidence men and women—think Ocean’s Eleven, but a bigger group of people. However, unlike that great flick, the con men—and women—in Focus generally pull a bunch of little jobs in and around these big events as opposed to a single big job. They all split the take and go their separate ways. While in New York the week before the Super Bowl—but they can’t really call it the Super Bowl, because the producers didn’t get the NFL license—Nicky encounters Jess (Margot Robbie), a wannabe con woman that is excellent at sleight of hand and pickpocketing. Nicky agrees to train Jess in the way of the con and over Super Bowl week, the two of them seemingly fall in love. Of course, Nicky was always taught by his father that as a con man, you leave love at the door and at the end of the Super Bowl job, he gives Jess her cut and disappears from her life. Cut to three years later and Nicky is without his team trying to swindle some Formula One racecar owners and who should he run into but Jess, who is dating the man who hired Nicky, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Now, just like Danny Ocean, Nicky has to decide what he’s stealing—the loot or the girl.
Focus is an enjoyable film, but it is also an extremely frustrating one as well. Every opportunity at real character development is turned inside out and the only ones getting conned are the audience members. There are endless twists that are not all that surprising and everything that happens in this film has been done better in something else. The love affair between Nicky and Jess is also highly unbelievable. The audience is supposed to believe that these two knew each other for a week and then three years later they’re still pining after one another. The sad part is, that could have been easily fixed by a script change—just have Nicky and Jess meet even earlier in the story and have two time cuts instead of one. There is one brilliant scene in particular that seems ripe for some real character development, but it ultimately turns into a “Gotcha” moment for the audience. It was frustrating to watch a film where no one really gets hurt when they’re running around dealing with criminals. Also, I would have liked the second half more if the rest of Nicky’s crew had been involved. Instead, the film pulls another fast one on the audience by making them think that Nicky really is a broken man, but it’s not really the case. The film’s lack of impact is really surprising with Ficarra and Requa involved since they had hands in two of my favorite comedies of the last fifteen years: Bad Santa and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Just a big disappointment.
The cast mostly does a good job here when the material isn’t letting them down. Smith is in fine, charming form as Nicky and if this script was better, Focus could have been the comeback vehicle for him after the train wreck that was After Earth. Instead, he’s opening a movie in the dead zone that is February. Robbie is likable as Jess, but her character doesn’t seem to learn a damn thing throughout the entire film and she constantly needs a man to save her, which is demeaning. Robbie’s a talented actress, as she showed in her big break out, The Wolf of Wall Street, but in this she feels only like eye candy. Gerald McRaney makes an appearance as Owens, Gerriga’s security man, but his dialogue is so over the top crotchety old man, he can’t be taken seriously. I liked Brennan Brown as Nicky’s right hand man, Horst, but he disappears after the Super Bowl job, never to be seen again in the film. My favorite performance, though, was from Adrian Martinez as Farhad. He was great and hilarious throughout the piece. More of Horst and Farhad would have helped the film greatly. Also, BD Wong is fantastic in the key scene in which he shows up. He also has probably the best line of the whole film.
Overall, I enjoyed the performances and banter in Focus, but the movie as a whole is a dud. Nothing of significance really happens and none of the characters really learn anything. This isn’t an absurdist comedy like Anchorman or Step Brothers, it’s a comedy with dramatic touches, but the filmmakers always make sure that it never gets too serious, because why would you want to make a good film instead of just a passable one? Huge disappointment, considering the talent involved here.