Just because you’re making a movie about the smartest people in the room doesn’t mean that you’re automatically one of them too.
The artistry behind the con movie is one of unpretentious misdirection and sincere cleverness, a combination that some filmmakers are unable to pull off convincingly. This usually occurs when the script lies in a questionable state, because underneath the stylish filmmaking, glossy camerawork, and crackling dynamic of the cast, the con movie needs a cemented plot as foundation. You could argue this for just about any movie, but in the con movie it’s especially important because without valid twists and turns or a plan that logistically checks out, it’s easier to make an audience feel unfairly duped instead of excitedly surprised or intrigued. The finest examples of the genre make the paramount nature of a concise script pretty clear: “The Sting” or the Sinatra-starring “Ocean’s 11” and it’s Soderbergh-helmed remake, “Matchstick Men,” and “The Grifters” are high-and-mighty in terms of writing, with George Roy Hill, Lewis Milestone, Ridley Scott, Stephen Frears and Soderbergh provided ample slickness to make it function cinematically. Proper slickness also involves a sense of invisibility, which is why it’s easy to plug Soderbergh as arguably the most successful in recent tacklings of this genre. There’s a persuasive ability to con movie filmmaking which lures you closer and closer to predictability, before it comes around and surprises you in a fitting way. Again, misdirection and cleverness, two necessary principles, and both require great skill to maintain.
“Focus” is the newest con movie flub; it possesses all of the right parts to make something playful and entertaining, but is simply too overconfident for it’s own good. It mostly nails the misdirection, but can’t provide the necessary cleverness as balance. It’s sleek and pretty to watch, mostly because stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie are great to look at, but “Focus” ironically suffers from a dismal lack of focus. It’s askew in a number of strange ways and despite a striking first half that speaks to a much more invigorating film, it quickly dismantles itself until it strikes out with a face-palming conclusion…of sorts. Obsessed with pulling a fast one, writing and directing team Glenn Ficarra & John Requa find their film dissolving quickly within the happenings of it’s own third act (a similar problem that plagued their previous effort, “Crazy Stupid Love,” but with less benefits to keep it magnificently afloat) hoping that their innumerable efforts at pulling the rug out will keep us from falling away entirely.
Smith stars as Nicky, a relaxed con man from a family of con men who currently spearheads his own army of con artists. Running about 30-strong, they operate in many moving parts, putting in equal effort and snatching priceless gadgets and goodies off of hopeless bystanders in mass and the selling them immediately on the black market to turn a quick profit. Everybody gets an equal cut and they all go home happy until the next scheduled rendezvous. “We’re in the volume business,” Nicky says when the twinkle-eyed ‘intern’ Jess (Robbie) inquires about the mega-sized ‘con of all cons’ that has been the epicenter of so many similar films. Jess meets Nicky amidst her own failed con, a lowbrow attempt at snatching his wallet that Nicky catches on to almost immediately. Aroused by his reputation, Jess begs her way into Nicky’s tutelage, but the two of them develop a relationship that extends into the bedroom, a commitment that the cool but reserved Nicky is unusually afraid of pursuing.
In one of the film’s finest scenes, Nicky takes Jess out onto a rooftop patio and takes her through a number of smooth ‘touches,’ or sleight-of-hand pocketings that sees Jess lose her wallet, after her watch, after her necklace, after her aquamarine ring over and over again. It’s quick, it’s loose, and it’s tantalizingly sexy in a smooth manner that has defined Will Smith’s aura for the greater part of his career. “This is a game of focus,” he quips. And this, in a nutshell, defines the variety of Smith that Ficarra & Requa were able to acquire, and to their benefit, it’s not only the best work Smith’s done in years, but the confidence he has in himself extends through just about every scene. After a slew of disappointing ventures and sore box office takes, “Focus” sees Will Smith with his groove intact and his sense of humor as polished as ever. This is movie star Will Smith, and if it’s the beginning of a resurgence, it might be one of the only reasons to consider be venturing out to “Focus.” The other reason would be Robbie, who extends past her thick-as-butter Long Island accent from “The Wolf of Wall Street” and hints at old-school movie charms that I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of in her upcoming slate. She’s an absolute bombshell, and she pairs with Smith nicely, but she dips away for a lot of the film’s problematic third act. Smith is unquestionably the headliner, but when “Focus” works the most, it’s shepherded by the ease of it’s leads.
But when “Focus” doesn’t work, its errors are rooted firmly in the script, which, tragically, meddles with the performances. For a great while, however, Ficarra & Requa do a decent job; the first act is buoyant and surefooted, quick and giddy, and, most of all, pretty funny. Smith and Robbie possess a rapport that feels so very natural, they’re scenes together are, at very best, reminiscent of the sizzling back-and-forths between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Soderbergh’s red-hot “Out of Sight.” Smith heavily embodies the young Clooney vibe and wears it like a finely tailored suit, especially in the effortless conning sequences that inhabit much of the first act and the Superdome set piece that maneuvers into the shaky second act.
Nicky and Jess find themselves in an economic jam when Nicky presses his luck against a highroller, overplayed with woozy smarm by “Law & Order: SVU’s” BD Wong. It’s a preposterous con movie set piece with a more than obvious outcome, but Ficarra & Requa keep it steady, and the wrap-around works because it’s not taken too seriously. It invites the laughs and sustains the energy. It’s confident if not terribly clever, but it’s forgivable as an enclosed sequence, which it could have easily decided not to be. Basically, this Superdome sequence is the cutoff point, it lays out a choice where the film can go the course of least resistance and become the con movie we’ve all seen before, or it can move onward unexpectedly. I’ll tell you now, it tries to make the second choice, though it probably should have attempted the former. In a single move, “Focus” expeditiously cancels out all of its potential.
The questionable narrative choice that comprises the second act break is when “Focus” turns into nothing but a sleek-looking mess. It begins to move too quickly for its own makings, trying to pile in another hour or so of storytelling in just under forty-five minutes, and it makes the movie’s finale agonizing. It also upends a lot of the fine work done by Smith and Robbie. Basically it tries to lay the seeds for what the trailer foolishly promotes as the centerpiece conflict, this kind of, “Who’s playing who?” set up and it just isn’t at all about that in the end. As the storytelling seams begin to tear, the directors look to compensate with sheer confidence, but it becomes a tug of war between a light con film and a romantic comedy. The earlier half managed to balance both with aplomb, but now it just invites audience skepticism, drawing a confusing web of inversions and contrivances and offering up a series of final twists that would make Sherlock Holmes shrug. It tarnishes the performances too as it seems to be about trying to figure out who might possibly be disingenuous and where the motivations lie, but as we finally enter the film’s climax, it feels like Ficarra & Requa just completely ran out of ideas. They don’t stoop to clichés, but they fumble to scribble in pretty much anything. By the time the credits roll, the energy has officially hit the mute button and the movie just fizzles off into nothingness. It’s a real dampener; one that I can only expect will hurt the audience response.
“Focus” isn’t as much a bad film as it is a cripplingly misguided one. What it promises at the outset isn’t something great or noteworthy, but definitely something to strictly enjoy; a try at the genre in a light and alluring way. Like they did with “Crazy Stupid Love,” what the early parts of “Focus” offer is a fresh take on the con movie with an emphasis on chemistry and romance above the slick machinations normally found in comparable films. It doesn’t mind being outrageous because the easygoing attitude is intoxicating enough, but the leap it makes narratively and the accompanying insecurity in tone ultimately makes “Focus” irreparable.
Somehow “Focus” cost $100 million to make and will be screening in IMAX theaters (I can’t tell you why). It’s hard to say the film is in a good position to really break even, as Will Smith hasn’t been bankable in close to a decade and Robbie is untested as a lead, but ironically I hope that it finds a way to do at least decently. If anyone deserves to come out of “Focus” unscathed, it’s Will Smith. Apparently, the “Hitch”-style Will Smith has been away a little too long. It’s a shame he made his return in a film that fails to support him.
Review by Mike Murphy