Focus sets it sights on that old film-friendly world of con artists, and while it doesn’t bring much new to the table, it maintains a lot of the classic appeal that has made this such a popular movie genre. Post-After Earth Will Smith still oozes the confidence required to play confidence man Nicky Spurgeon, who can steal your girlfriend and your wallet while making you think he’s doing you a favour. He meets his match in Jess Barrett (Wolf of Wall Street‘s Margot Robbie), a stunningly beautiful newbie to the grifter game with lots of potential. Much of the film relies on the romantic interplay between these two, so try to ignore the fact that he’s almost twice her age and was already playing the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when she was born.
The first half the film takes place primarily in New Orleans, during a pro Football championship that would be the Super Bowl had the NFL signed off on it. Here Nicky introduces her to a highly organized team of about 30 glorified pickpockets. While stealing from unknowing targets doesn’t really qualify as a con, it’s how they’ve turned it into a highly efficient system that makes it impressive. As Nicky explains, they deal in volume, which is safer. We know this is advice he won’t continue to follow, as stakes need to be raised. This happens when Nicky gets sucked into a betting war with a notorious gambler played B.D. Wong, who makes it the best scene of the film. After the Superb Bowl, we skip ahead three years, where Nicky encounters Jess in Buenos Aires during a scam he’s running on racing mogul Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Double crosses and misleads ensue.
Writer/ directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) are going for the grift of Ocean’s 11 with the romance of Out of Sight, and while it’s not as good as either of those films, it still entertains for the most part. The thing with this kind of film is that you know not to trust most of what you’re being shown, as by now we’re aware most of it will reveal itself to be false. Whether its the characters’ motivations or emotions, the long con will ultimately be on us so we don’t get invested in anything until it all shakes out at the end. The hope is that it can achieve this ending with at least a mild amount of surprise and plausibility, and I’d say the film makes the minimum requirement in that respect.
Like Tom Cruise, Smith has long been one of those movie stars who has become difficult to disassociate with the roles he’s playing. This one no doubt appealed to his vanity, with plenty of opportunities to take his shirt off while seducing young Robbie. He’s charming for the most part, but the depth they try to infuse into the character is lost in the haze of lies that are an occupational hazard for Nicky, who will not be remembered among Newman and Clooney’s classic con men. It’s unfortunate that the ‘Will Smith Show’ takes away from the team who are mostly background players, with the exception of Adrian Martinez, who gets the biggest laughs but is still underused.
You may need to squint your brain a little to blur out the sillier, far fetched parts of Focus, but it still works on that base level of fancy Hollywood distraction. The women are beautiful, the locales are exotic, the clothes are stylish, the stakes are high (in the second half), and everyone plays their assigned two-dimensional parts with authority. Imagine Now You See Me, but instead of a team of con men, you get Will Smith, and instead of magic, you get Will Smith (Now You See Me Topless).