Published Jun 15, 2015Focus is very much a conservative gamble. Will Smith, whose star status is wavering, hasn't had the best run of things of late; After Earth was hilariously bad, Men in Black 3 sort of slipped by without much acknowledgement and Seven Pounds was a drag for the handful of people that got through it. As an actor, he's really never been in anything particularly great, but he did act in a few terrible action movies that fared well commercially almost 20 years ago.
Conversely, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have been dabbling with mainstream legitimacy lately. Before taking the directing gig on Crazy, Stupid, Love, which was crazy, stupid, lame, they wrote raunchy, irreverent comedies like Bad Santa and I Love You, Philip Morris. They're hilarious guys with a lot of talent that have been playing it safe of late, making movies that neither offend nor inspire. Focus is a carefully considered, well-packaged star vehicle. It's like a slightly more accessible Matchstick Men, which, when combined with the rising star power of Margot Robbie — the Australian that flashed her bird in The Wolf of Wall Street — is a pretty safe bet for moderate commercial and critical success.
Indirectly (and presumably intentionally, considering the sensibilities of Ficarra and Requa), Focus plays out with an eerie sense of self-awareness. The premise finds Nicky (Smith), a career swindler and pickpocket, mentoring the much-younger Jess (Robbie), after she does a half-assed job of trying to con him. This set-up finds the pair dabbling with romance and going through a montage of admittedly entertaining and clever schemes before they have a tiff and the film jumps ahead a few years to Nicky's "last" con. Inevitably, Jess pops up in the middle of the con and the question we, as an audience, are left asking is: Are they in on it together or are they playing each other?
The self-awareness stems from the handful of involved con descriptions and explanations. Nicky describes using subliminal messaging to manipulate his targets and distracting people with movements or peripheral noise to get their mind away from the steal. In a way, that's exactly what Focus is doing, as well. Thematically, there's really nothing going on here beyond the observation that a life of deception and a misanthropic disposition will ultimately leave us lonely. And the fledgling romance between Smith and Robbie (who is young enough to be his daughter) is little more than facile male bullshit.
But, what Focus does well, much like its protagonist, is distract us from the unseemly nature of everything beneath the surface. The story progresses efficiently, keeping the audience guessing about allegiances and wondering who is being honest about what while making entertaining the various games of deception. It's true that some of the schemes are way too complex and unlikely to work — the build-up to the football game con would cost almost as much to set up as they ultimately win — but Focus isn't interested in mirroring any practical sense of reality.
As such, it works for what it is and manages to engage while it's flashing on screen, even though the lingering effect is the realization that we've merely been conned by generic cinematic tropes. The supplements do little to remedy this feeling, focusing mainly on the training the actors did for the cons. At least Requa and Ficarra toss in a couple of wildly inappropriate and contextually odd conversations between Nicky's right-hand man Farhad (Adrian Martinez) and Jess, wherein he accuses her of an addiction to cunnilingus and alludes to her breath having an aroma that proves this assertion.