I had reservations about Focus. Outside of Men in Black, Smith hasn’t done a remotely memorable comedy since Made in America. In the biggest twist Focus offers, it turns out I actually remember Made in America.
I’d describe Focus more as a romantic drama with an attempted sense of humor. The film centers on Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), a lifelong grifter in a long line of grifters. Although he claims not to believe in the “One Last Big Job” trope, billionaire inventor Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) hires him to pull off One Last Big Job. Garriga has Nicky steal fake documents from Garriga’s company to sell to rival billionaire McEwen (Robert Taylor) as corporate sabotage. This otherwise easy job gets complicated fast when Nicky encounters Garriga’s girlfriend Jess (Margot Robbie), Nicky’s ex-lover and ex-protégé whose heart he broke three years before. The balance of the film deals with the tumultuous romance between Nicky and Jess. Naturally, when emotions get involved, it becomes hard for the characters to figure out where the con ends and reality begins.
Most of the “comedy” comes from Farhad (Adrian Martinez), Nicky’s corpulent Persian conman and wingman. Although Martinez somehow found “depth” in the role, the script’s idea of comedy consists of Farhad making gay jokes and self-deprecating fat jokes. If your idea of humor involves fat people feeling confident or suggestions that someone has a romantic preference for the same sex, then you can watch Focus as you wonder why nobody lets Adam Sandler make music anymore or why you have to repeat the seventh grade again.
The romance between Nicky and Jess lies at the heart of the film. Most of its tension and conflicts come from that “do they really love each other in this disingenuous, dog-eat-dog world” dilemma. Outside of that, the film has one of those misdirection-based plots like in The Spanish Prisoner or The Prestige or Mission: Impossible or Ronin. The film trains the viewer to constantly guess at what “really” happens. But unlike these other films, the answers prove less exciting or interesting than what the viewer would hope. As with your average heist film, directors/writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa play up conspicuous consumption and glamor. The directors apparently blew their budget photographing money and expensive jewelry, since it has virtually no big setpieces or spectacle. (The R-rating comes from language, not things like nipples or big-budget violence that make it worthwhile to bother turning 17.)
The film portrays scamming as an unrealistic ticket to Easy Street with few long-term consequences. At no point does anyone even mention prison; they present a broken heart as the biggest occupational hazard. Several victims simply shrug off losing millions, with no lasting suspicions or vendettas. Rather than make the film seem glamorous or exciting, it makes the world of thieving look low-stakes and unimpressive. It doesn’t help that several plot threads turn out not to go anywhere. Several character tics and patterns turn out not to matter. The screenplay even drops all but three characters entirely about halfway through.
The film has its strong points, though. Gerald McRaney has a memorable supporting turn as Owens, Garriga’s crusty, aging henchman who gets one of those “you damn kids and your newfangled toys” monologues. B.D. Wong plays against type with a brief but memorable role as Liuyan, a high-powered gambler who exploits Nicky’s gambling addiction. He takes center stage in the first act climax, which feels mostly routine and predictable until a sudden twist radically alters the scene’s power dynamic. We also get an ostensibly-unrelated, Breaking Bad-esque sequence with a random goon that turns out to tie in with the main narrative in an unexpected way. I wish the film had more of these little asides; it would’ve kept the viewer engaged and would’ve even made the title of Focus actually relevant. Instead, the script leans heavily on Nicky’s “antihero mustn’t get too attached” conflict, which just seems old hat when a zillion more compelling antiheroes exist.
Ficarra and Requa almost make up for their stale script with the cinematography. The film has quite a lot of two-shots between Jess and Nicky; the directors know when to zoom in and when to go for a wide shot to communicate their ever-changing emotional distance. It helps that Smith and Robbie make a charming couple. The directors also excel at city photography. They bring out the beauty of New York City, New Orleans, and Buenos Aires. The big cities look gorgeous and inviting (and definitely pricey). Their lighting reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn or Alejandro González Iñárritu. The location shooting suggests an epic scope that feels sweeping and inviting, even if the story doesn’t back it up.
To the film’s credit, Smith and Robbie have good enough chemistry to carry the film. Robbie shows great potential as a femme fatale, and she has a striking on-screen presence. She proves able to go toe-to-toe with Smith in spite of their wide gap in experience. But it takes more than chemistry to make a good heist film. More than anything, Focus reminds me of Now You See Me. Both films center around misdirection, and both misdirect the viewer into thinking they have any substance to speak of. You’ll probably enjoy Focus while you watch it… then you’ll wonder a few hours later if you really enjoyed it at all.Liked This? Share It!