Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Will Smith as Nicky Spurgeon
Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Sequa
A good con is a like a good magic trick: it darts your attention to something flashy and then drags it back to something surprising, creating interest and enjoyment with the mystery of how it was achieved.
Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is a good con artist – the latest in a long line of them in fact – fluent in every scam in the book and then some. And when Focus lets Smith loose to do his thing – unwrapping impossibly-planned and executed schemes like some bottomless lotus blossom and letting Smith wallow in his own natural screen presence in the process – it works like a good magic trick.
You don’t always know how every piece of it worked, but you have a lot of fun guessing and there’s some good banter and a few surprises keeping things moving. Unfortunately, co-writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) have other things on their minds and not to the film’s betterment.
Nicky’s skills and contacts make him appear, at first glance, to be just the person to teach aspiring grifter Jess (Robbie) the tricks of the trade. Or so she thinks, forgetting the rule about never trusting a con artist and certainly not with your heart. Though it sounds weird on paper, Smith and Robbie make an engaging on-screen couple, in part because their very different styles make interesting foils for each other. Robbie in particular displays a flare for comedy, transforming her various facial expressions of surprise into a punchline of their own, be she receiving an impromptu lesson on pickpocketing or betting on what drunk guys at a football game will do. It collides well with Smith’s classic street smart, wiseass manner which fits snugly with Focus’ light style and tone, allowing him the freedom to both make himself and others look ridiculous at just the right moment.
It’s all an act of course, a sideshow to the main event, the various cons themselves. Ficarra and Requa dance around their set-ups like ballerinas, letting them build and build before pulling not just rabbits from hats but lions from a coat pocket far too small to contain it worn by some random guy in the back of the room. They’re helped by the natural visual cheating film provides – unlike a live magician, the director actually can determine where and what you will be looking at any given moment in the film – but also by well conceptualized and executed schemes designed with just the right mixture of brazeness and impossibility. The very fact that it is probably impossible to make someone pick one person out of a stadium holding tens of thousands actually makes the film’s offering that much more enticing. That’s partly due to how well Ficarra and Requa divert the audience’s attention until just the moment when they no longer have to. The various prestiges on display work … almost every time.
In this context, however, “almost” is a big gap. The one thing all of Focus’ elements have in common – from the movie trickery to the gags to the turn of the plot – is the need for a compelling distraction to mask the sleight of hand, and Nicky and Jess’s troubled romance does not fit that category in any form.
This is partly a structural issue. When Nicky is done with his first gig with her he follows the con man’s maxim and leaves her on a street corner, keeping himself separate from any entanglements that might affect his wits and not at all expecting to meet her three years later while working on the biggest score of his life. While the initial breakup is somewhat understandable in context, happening as early as it does in the film and following it with a substantial time jump does not give the relationship enough time to build organically, both robbing the breakup of power and placing Nicky’s years-long regret at a remove, making it difficult to empathize with. It doesn’t help that the romantic scenes are the worst-written in the film to the point where even Nicky and Jess will stop and make fun of their own dialogue.
Like Nicky, the filmmakers have forgotten their own cardinal rule invented for the brotherhood of thieves: never lose focus on what you’re actually doing. It may be one flaw in a piece of light entertainment that does a lot right, but it is unfortunately a major one, resulting in an uneven ride with an underwhelming turn as filmmakers and cast alike try to remember what was the trick and what was the distraction.
As Focus goes along, Ficarra and Requa move further and further away from the job and take most of the film’s interest with them as they get swept up in the supposed romance. Or perhaps that was always the intention – to show that real emotion and real human connection are where a person’s focus should be, not on a trick being pulled. But if so, the follow-through has not been able to keep up as only the cons themselves seem particularly interesting to anyone, including the directors. They are, it turns out, the real substance; the romance is just smoke and mirrors.