Con artist movies are a lot like magicians. The audience watching them is fully aware that some kind of trick is being played, and is actively trying to figure it out. It is their responsibility to present something new and exciting while also hiding the keys to the trick the whole time. Naturally, the chief pitfalls are predictability and conventionality, but if expectations can be subverted, then all that’s left is awe.
It’s by these standards that Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus ultimately succeeds, despite a few moments where it shows the cards that hide up the movie’s “sleeve.”
The story follows a veteran confidence trickster named Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), and his on-again/off-again dalliance with a beautiful, talented up-and-comer in the crime game named Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). The movie is not only smart enough to defy convention, it even repeatedly identifies the most common tropes of the genre and cleverly either plays around or bulldozes right through them. This isn’t the movie where criminals are looking for one last big score before sailing into the sunset – instead this is the movie where Will Smith openly identifies why that’s a mistake, and explains the benefits of playing the small game.
This approach extends to the characters as well, as the audience is repeatedly tossed personality red herrings that are followed right up until the moment you realize that what you’re thinking is exactly what the film wants you to think. Ficarra and Requa play this up well with their camera work (the title is a good hint at one of the feature’s best visual tricks), and it can be a lot of fun. In its best moments, Focus is one of the best con movies in years.
Unfortunately, inconsistency holds the film back, and while Focus expertly dances around certain clichés, it also steps directly into a few others. Divulging too many details would ruin the game – and that’s definitely not what I’m here to do – but there are early scenes that reek of foreshadowing exposition, and sadly pay off precisely as expected. To a similar end, the audience goes into the movie presuming that the end will come together in some kind of surprise twist, and in the shadow of everything that precedes it, it’s disappointingly underwhelming. It’s by no means a bad ending, and doesn’t ruin what came before it. But it’s also not as great as one would hope.
Helping to carry Focus through its rough patches are Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who not only deliver splendid individual performances, but also have a wonderful chemistry together that provides the movie with dynamism. Though he’s had it a bit rough on screen these past few years, Smith is as charming as he’s ever been. He never really lets go of his nice guy persona, but that only reinforces his believability as a skilled confidence trickster. Playing off his energy as Jess, Robbie is both incredibly smart and funny, but is so good at putting Nicky off his game that she maintains a wonderful mysterious femme fatale edge. When paired together, they have fantastic repartee and rapport, and it’s fun to watch their relationship evolve over the course of the story.
While Smith and Robbie are left to shoulder most of the film’s drama, Focus becomes a perfect venue for character actors to shine in supporting roles, and there are more than a few incredibly entertaining examples. Playing the muscle of a billionaire who hires Nicky to help him run a scam, Gerald McRaney is a riot, and brings a gruff, funny, old-school energy to the film with grumbly rants about manners and irresponsible fuck-ups. In a more limited role, BD Wong is also fantastic, playing a perfect foil for Nicky and providing the film some of its best moments. At the end of the day, however, it’s Adrian Martinez who is the movie’s standout, playing an oddball character named Farhad who feels ripped straight out of a Coen brothers movie and gets the film’s biggest laughs.
There is certainly a degree of wasted potential in Focus. A few adjustments could have made the film a significant degree better. But for what it is, it’s entertaining. It’s not as smart as you want it to be, but it’s a lot smarter than the worst examples of the genre.