First we have writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, previously responsible for Crazy, Stupid, Love. Though the trailers for that film so famously introduced the world to Ryan Gosling’s abs and the rest of the cast was very impressive, the picture itself turned out to be a cliched and instantly forgettable mediocrity.
Then we have female lead Margot Robbie, who came from absolutely nowhere to take everyone’s attention with The Wolf of Wall Street. That one performance was enough to make her an instant A-lister (or at least a B-plus-lister), but it remains to be seen if she really is the next great up-and-comer or just a one-hit wonder.
Finally, there’s male lead Will Smith. Now decades removed from his Fresh Prince heyday, or even his ID4/MIB heyday, or even his Oscar-nominated Ali heyday, Smith’s career seems to have hit an all-time low. I could point to the several fruitless years he spent trying to make his kids into movie stars, to say nothing of his part in applying electroshock therapy to the dead horse that is the Men in Black franchise, but it was really After Earth that called his career viability into question.
(Insert here: A moment of silence in memory of M. Night Shyamalan’s once-promising career.)
Basically, Focus may as well have been titled “Something to Prove.” All the major players on both sides of the camera are at crucial points in their careers right now, at the precise tipping point where one film could make all the difference between living as sought-after talents or box office poison. Naturally, some of them come out looking better than others.
Smith plays Nicky, a born-and-bred con artist on his way out of town. He crosses paths with Jess (Robbie), a young woman off the street who starts pulling cons and picking pockets to keep from going hungry. Though Jess may be very green, her smoking hot looks and light touch make her a natural pickpocket. Couple that with her sheer tenacity, and Jess manages to work her way into Nicky’s next operation.
The two of them head to New Orleans, where a huge football game (the Super Bowl, I assume) is going on to lure in suckers from all over the country. Thus Nicky assembles a whole network of thieving acquaintances to loot jewelry, cash, credit card info, and anything else the tourists have that isn’t nailed down. Actually, no, I’m pretty sure they do steal a few things that are in fact nailed down.
This whole first act has some great stuff. Jess works as our audience surrogate as she learns more about the criminal underworld taking advantage of flaws in the system. She also grows as a person, gaining confidence with every successful heist. As for Nicky, he works perfectly fine as a mentor figure who’s been doing this all his life and acts like he doesn’t have a damn thing to prove. We also see that he has a problem with gambling, which provides another avenue for potential character growth. And of course Nicky and Jess get a romance arc with far more chemistry than you might expect.
Last but not least, the pickpocketing moments are brilliantly presented. There are some neatly choreographed moments as Nicky’s gang robs everyone blind, passing stuff between each other in such a way that it’s easy to believe none of the marks could be the wiser. Sure, some of the bigger heists have some plot holes and implausibilities, but that comes standard with con movies and the film handles it relatively well.
The first act has all the pieces of a good film. If the filmmakers had just taken that first half-hour and stretched it out to 100 minutes, the resulting movie would have been perfectly fine. But then Nicky ditches his love interest after their work in New Orleans is done. And we cut to three years later. And the movie keeps on going, for some reason.
Nicky is now in the employ of Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a race car owner who’s found some way to build race cars in a faster and more fuel-efficient manner. His plan is for Nicky to pose as a disgruntled technician in Garriga’s employ who’s willing to sell the mystery formula to one of Garriga’s competitors. Nicky will then sell a false formula, putting Garriga’s competitors at a disadvantage and costing them millions of dollars.
Got all that? Good. Now forget it. Because all of that takes a backseat when Nicky finds that Jess is in town, and she’s now dating Garriga. So now Nicky has to try and patch things up with his old protege because they still love each other and he’s a changed man and aaaaaugh!
There are so many reasons why everything falls apart after the first act. To start with, who freaking cares about something that can make race cars maybe a third of a second faster? When the central con in a con movie is so boring and has such ill-defined stakes, that’s kind of a big problem. Secondly, again, this is a con movie. We know that the characters are playing each other, which means that we can’t trust a single thing that any of the characters do or say until the big reveal. Thus the audience will spend the whole movie watching the clock and waiting for the end of the film unless we’re given something really special to watch for the duration.
This brings me to the third big problem: The romance aspect. Put simply, I do not want to spend an entire film watching Will Smith pine after the woman who got away. I don’t even care if the movie is only 100 minutes long, I just don’t want to see it. Smith already tried this whole awkward romantic comedy schtick with Hitch and it’s as boring now as it was eight fucking years ago. It’s embarrassing to watch as Smith — now 46 years old — is still called upon to pass himself off as a thirty-something, and it takes away from the charming air of sincerity that this character so badly needs.
The comparison between the first and second acts makes it even more awful. The first act showed us a Will Smith who could do a great job of aging artistically, presenting a man who may be slightly older than the Hollywood standard, but could leverage those years into charm and expertise like younger generations could never imagine. To see that new and interesting persona swapped out with the same crap that drove Smith’s career into the ground in the first place was a bad move for everyone involved.
By comparison, Margot Robbie shines from start to finish. I can’t stress enough how amazing it is that Robbie plays a character who’s sexy and beguiling enough to successfully fool a hardened lifelong con artist into dropping his guard and letting him think that she’s some harmless and innocent ingenue. And then she turns on a dime to show the confidence that makes her a credible thief.
Robbie runs the full gamut of emotions in this film and she comes out looking like a pro. She can do seductive and heartbroken, she can do gorgeous and smart, she can do comedy just as well as tragedy. I find her range and screen presence somehow oddly similar to that of Emma Stone, except that she’s somehow even more impossibly gorgeous. I’m now entirely convinced that she’s the real deal, and it’s fantastic to think that she hasn’t even hit her stride yet.
Come to think of it, the supporting cast isn’t too bad, either. Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, and Brennan Brown all get chances to turn in some halfway decent work and they all succeed at leaving an impression. Looking back at this film and Crazy, Stupid, Love, it occurs to me that Ficarra and Requa are very fortunate to have such impeccable skill with casting; all the talent in front of the camera helps to distract from how the filmmakers are such uninspired storytellers.
Focus is one of those unfortunate films that had all the ingredients of a good movie, put together in the wrong order. The first act was absolutely brilliant and the ending had some neat moments with the big reveal, but everything in between was a chore to sit through. It breaks my heart that the twisted fun of watching Nicky and Jess fall unwisely in love while robbing hapless tourists was only a prelude for the boring romance story of watching Nicky try and win Jess back.
The good news is that while Ficarra and Requa have proven themselves unworthy of the actors they somehow manage to attract, Smith and Robbie both acquit themselves wonderfully. Smith can light up the screen when he’s allowed to act his age, and I’m confident that Robbie can knock anything out of the park no matter what’s thrown at her. Incidentally, the pair will be partnering again soon, respectively playing Deadshot and Harley Quinn for David Ayer over at DC/WB. I can honestly say that after this movie, I’m looking forward to it.