“Focus” Review: We All Got Robbed
Nicky (Will Smith) is one of the world’s foremost con artists. His skills are legendary and there isn’t anything about the business he doesn’t know, or so he thought. One night, he crosses paths with an amateur grifter named Jess (Margot Robbie). Jess desperately wants to learn the art of the steal, but Nicky is reluctant to train her. Finally relenting, a trip to New Orleans during the Super Bowl not only leads the pair to a massive score, but also kick-starts a chain of events that will place them at dangerous odds with one another.
There are two types of movies centering on thieves. There are the sexy, stylish caper flicks that emphasize the glamor and allure of the business; fast cars, exotic locations, lots of sexual tension between the leads. Then there are those films that focus on blue collar criminals. The latter tends to strip away all the elegance and sexiness in favor of the gritty reality of being a professional thief. The easiest compare/contrast pairing would be Michael Mann‘s Thief (super blue-collar) and Steven Soderbergh‘s remake of Ocean’s 11 (super movie star sexy). Both types of heist films have their merits, but the sleek, steamy heist films have to be twice as careful that they don’t lose, you guessed it, focus.
Focus, from the writers/directors of Crazy, Stupid, Love, is essentially two separate films stitched together with low-grade thread. The first half is a sort of criminal variation of the meet cute, perhaps one could call it a cheat cute? Will Smith and Margot Robbie demonstrate that they do indeed have palpable chemistry on screen, and Smith’s self-aware humor keeps his studly Nicky from seeming predictably bulletproof. There is also an engaging amount of tradecraft depicted in this first half of the movie. We watch Nicky and his crew work New Orleans during the Super Bowl utilizing an unexpected quantity-over-quality approach. Instead of one elaborate score, these guys lift thousands of wallets, purses, and credit cards. It’s strange to remark, but somehow this constant hustle humanizes Smith’s character and makes him more relatable, as the audience tends to have more sympathy for a character constantly on the grind.
This detail-oriented exploration of thievery in the trenches also serves as a handy distraction so that the audience doesn’t even necessarily recognize the slowly approaching climax of this first half; a climax simultaneously more conventional to a sexy heist film and a creative twist on that convention. In this moment, one may presume to know all that is unfolding, but will not be able to beat the screenwriters to the final punch.
Then, just as suddenly as Focus reaches its most triumphant beat, it screeches to a halt, literally, and characters are separated by a flimsy, entirely unmotivated complication. It is apparently prompted by a character flaw in Nicky that is barely mentioned and not at all explored before we’re smash-cutting to three years ahead of said confounding separation. Now begins the new con, the long con, and frankly, by the time the credits roll, it will be the viewer who feels robbed. The second half of Focus is a meandering mess. It spends so much time establishing threads that it will then systematically begin unraveling in a vain attempt to give the plot complexity. The problem is that when all the threads are pulled, what’s left is an entirely mediocre love story. The love between Jess and Nicky seemed solid enough at the end of the first half, but with all the layers of falsity and fabrication thrown up to keep the audience guessing during the second half, their relationship gets completely lost right up until the point wherein we are to believe all that matters to either character is the other.
That’s not to say Focus is without its strengths, even across the chasm that divides the two halves of the film. The supporting cast, lead by Adrian Martinez as the foul-mouthed, but wholly loveable Farhad, is excellent. Focus also takes some chances with plot structure that do actually pay off; one scene in particular in which we watch an attack on our hero entirely from the henchman’s point of view is bold and captivating. Still, by the time the last domino falls, Focus is, in fact, a movie that loses its focus. Do yourself a favor, wait until Focus hits Netflix, then switch it off right after the Super Bowl con scene. In that scenario, Focus becomes an outstanding, sexy heist short.
How It Stacks Up
Focus vs. Heist
First and foremost, if 2001’s Heist sneaked by you when it was in theaters, rectify that oversight immediately. Heist was released the same year as the Ocean’s 11 remake, which is yet another stark example of the differences between sexy heist film and blue collar heist film. The interesting thing about Focus is that much of the dialogue feels like someone unsuccessfully trying to ape David Mamet‘s writing, with, at best, uneven results. Heist, which was in fact written and directed by Mamet, does not, as one can imagine, have that issue. Also, while Gene Hackman may not be as sexy a movie star as Will Smith, Heist has just the right number of turns without the film devolving into gimmicky twists.
Focus vs. The Gambler
At one point, during the events of Focus, it is revealed that Will Smith’s Nicky has a bit of a penchant for absurdly high stakes wagers. This is reminiscent of Mark Wahlberg‘s character in Rupert Wyatt‘s The Gambler. While this does make both characters vulnerable and human, and thus more likable, both films suffer from a very similar deficiency in the dynamics of their central relationships. Wahlberg falls for a student, played by Brie Larson, and we are expected to believe that the love he feels for her is what finally motivates him to give up his gambling; his most defining characteristic. Spoiler alert! An almost identical scenario plays out at the end of Focus, in which Smith’s Nicky is willing to make major life changes in order to be with Robbie’s Jess. Like The Gambler, Focus does not do the appropriate character legwork to solidify these relationships and we are left with a breakneck turnabout that feels completely out of left field. Still, at least The Gambler is one film throughout.
Advantage: The Gambler