From the writing duo of Bad Santa and, er, Cats & Dogs comes the latest of Hollywood’s slick con-artist caper movies: Focus. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa serve up a stylish Ocean’s Eleven/The Sting fusion that oozes gloss and tries hard to freshen up this formulaic genre. And for the most part it does succeed, although the overall tone of the film is misjudged slightly and perhaps a little too light.
We begin by being introduced to conman Nicky (played with charming confidence by Will Smith) who’s a strange cross between a slick Derren Brown and a sneaky pickpocketing Fagan. He meets Jess (Margot Robbie of The Wolf Of Wall Street and Aussie soap Neighbours fame) in a seemingly run-of-the-mill romcom scenario. But the plot, as they say, thickens.
Jess, it turns out, is a fellow con artist pickpocket who’s desperate to become Nicky’s padawan and learn how to make big bucks. So cue some nifty setups of Nicky walking us through detailed cons and tricks. His powers of observation make him a superhero and people play into his hands like puppets. It’s all about focus you see. Draw the attention HERE then steal a watch or purse THERE. And also wave your hand like a Jedi or something.
The chemistry between Smith and Robbie is what makes this movie. They are both sharp and alluring, and watching them play off each other is one of the joys of Focus. But wait - romance, a big scam, crosses and double-crosses ensue (of course) and they part ways, only to cross paths again some years later during one of Nicky’s solo scams. Is she playing him? Is he playing her? A sexy game of cat and mouse commences as they team up together anyway but who can be trusted?
It is Ironic that the film sadly lacks focus. Its three main parts are glued together by plot-twisting events, there never seems to be a natural flow to the story. Without giving away too many details, the twists involve long-winded build ups which basically sign post the conclusions simply because we know the characters lie and deceive for a living. This is one of the drawbacks to such movies – the audience spends too much time second-guessing. Some films do, of course, pull it off rather well – 2013’s plot-twisting scam caper American Hustle for example – but Focus does fall victim to being a bit too convoluted at times. And it is hard to present something new and refreshing in this genre. Focus does try hard to, but ultimately it ends up borrowing from similar fare such as Derailed, The Sting, and The Game.
The final scam comes off as slightly muddled and confusing as to what the real con was, and I was left wondering if the outcome was down to genius planning or utterly random fortune. And anyone familiar with TV’s Derren Brown’s twisted mind-controlling methods may view certain ‘reveals’ as anti-climactic.
But it’s not all bad. There is one delightful sequence featuring BD Wong as an eccentric giggling billionaire sporting a weird reverse-Hitler ‘tache, who draws Nicky into a bout of high stakes betting which quickly spirals out of control. Or does it....? Dum dum daaa! And Nicky’s sidekick Farhad (played by Adrian Martinez), who looks strangely like Marge Simpson’s sister Selma for some reason, lights up every scene he’s in.
The big draw though is Smith and Robbie. Their chemistry is electric, and I’m looking forward to seeing them reunite for next year’s Suicide Squad (Robbie taking on the role of Harley Quinn while Smith tackles Deadshot). As for Focus – well it’s Hollywood at its glossiest. A fun, light-hearted and enjoyable ride while it lasts but will be forgetten about in a few months time. It does, however, welcome Will Smith back to the bigtime after a few flops, and showcases Margot Robbie as a future Hollywood talent.
Now where did I put my watch...
The chemistry between Smith and Robbie holds it together, Focus is an enjoyable watch and worth checking out.