Written and Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Dominic Fumusa, Brennan Brown and Griff Furst.
In the midst of veteran con man Nicky’s latest scheme, a woman from his past – now an accomplished femme fatale – shows up and throws his plans for a loop.
The fundamental problem with films like Focus lays in how many similar films like Focus you may have seen. You know exactly what you’re in for (namely, a con) but the fun is always in how the con is pulled off and how the film can gain the confidence of the audience only to trick us at the end. Unfortunately, even if you’ve seen just one similar film chances are it’s far better than this.
When I think of all the best con artist movies I’ve seen over the years – The Sting, Matchstick Men, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, The Grifters, Ocean’s Eleven, and the largely underrated Edward Burns movie Confidence to name but a few – there are several elements which make them memorable; be that the con, the characters, the stakes, the set-ups, the writing (OK, that applies mostly here to David Mamet) or the obstacles they face, but each film has many layers and all make for at least an entertaining romp or in the case of The Sting something far greater. Watching Focus is like putting the pieces of far better films together and passing it off as something new when in fact it’s as bland as any remake/reboot you can name, just with a title which hadn’t been used before.
In the film’s defence it starts promisingly. Will Smith (the sole reason for watching) is a con man who leads a large team of con artists targeting popular events like the Super Bowl or World Series where people go to let loose, get drunk, open their wallets and let down the guard. After a meet-cute with Margot Robbie (pretty face but zero charisma which goes to show what magic Martin Scorsese can work) where she’s on the job, Smith initiates her into his team. Quickly she learns how to get to somewhere near his level of skill and I quite enjoyed the promise of a team of con artists (‘Smith’s Thirty’ perhaps) travelling the world pulling jobs in 48 hours, getting out and getting rich. It’s a different take on a familiar genre, I thought, and I was on board.
That’s at around twenty minutes in. After this point, and you’ll have to excuse the pun, Focus quickly loses focus and becomes increasingly boring. After an extended scene of high stakes betting with a super-rich businessman whose resolution is as painfully obvious as it is stupid, the film tells us it’s ‘three years later’ for the sole reason that there is no where left to go. The plot has run out of steam at 45 minutes and a new story is brought in where essentially everything which has gone before is going to be either a (painful obvious) callback or of no consequence whatsoever. Either way the second half of this film is a non-starter.
There is a job for Smith to do but the focus is rarely on the confidence tricks and we’re left with the classic ‘he’s how I did it’ montage which relies on computer hacking at the heart of it. Computer hacking and file stealing is not a confidence trick, and it’s a total cop-out in a film about con artists. What’s left is a strained romance between Smith and Robbie which is never more than surface level and twists which I actively tried to guess – and that’s something I never, ever do when a film which relies on twists and turns is actually engaging me.
Director/screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa shoot nothing but style (or at least lavish locations and sexy people on repeat) over substance, and their two lead characters have no arcs or discernible characteristics which makes us want to know anything about this story they are in. The status quo never changes for Smith and nothing is ever at stake in the film; and even when Ficarra and Requa try to make you think it is, you know it isn’t. In movies like this the film works best when it’s one step ahead of the audience but in Focus I think we’re matching it stride for stride especially when neither party really cares what’s going on.
How I wish the film had gone down the route of a con artist team rather than the boring, predictable and quasi-intelligent mess it became. Will Smith is such a charming leading man, he could have pulled off a Danny Ocean-like role with charisma to spare and Focus could have served up a new take on an old tale. Alas, this is just another attempt to rework a genre which has seen some truly great films do it all before and it isn’t like Focus even tries to copy them; it loses its focus and the audience loses its patience. And yes, I made the ‘focus’ pun twice.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.