We’re quickly approaching that post-Oscar portion of the calendar when the odds of coming across a worthwhile film are between slim and none. As with many Vegas sports gamblers after the Super Bowl, most distributors already either lost or won their biggest bets before the sweltering summer season of sensationalism begins. Yet hope springs eternal, and with “Focus” it seems as though that period of purgatory is put off for at least one more week.
Will Smith stars as Nicky, a seasoned master of misdirection who becomes romantically involved with novice con artist Jess (Margot Robbie). As he’s teaching her the tricks of the trade, she gets too close for comfort and he abruptly breaks it off. Three years later, the former flame—now an accomplished femme fatale—shows up in Buenos Aires in the middle of the high stakes racecar circuit. In the midst of Nicky’s latest, very dangerous scheme, she throws his plans for a loop…. and the consummate con man off his game. Synopsis by Warner Bros.
Writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa give this light-hearted crime drama a bravado that suggests it wants to be compared cerebrally to the likes of Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” or Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” without straight-up emulating them. To wit, its pervasively playful tone and glamor shots help keep those expectations in check. What could have been an ambitious, heady thriller aims lower for the sake of being approachable and more fun. And after an Oscar-bait season rife with heavy emotions and grim sentiments, common sense says that’s exactly what audiences are looking for right now.
For better or worse, what makes this movie work is the chemistry between the leads. Will Smith and Margot Robbie provide hypnotizing eye candy, but also demonstrate a dynamic that can’t be faked or phoned in. As all great on-screen couples do, they dance with their eyes and play chess with their words. Though the script won’t put you in awe, the performances more than make up for any lack of self-aware witticisms. Reading between the lines is what’s important here—and you won’t help but interpret some sizzling verses.
Where “Focus” shows its warts is in the third act. For sure, the amusing side characters and romantic intrigue can only take us so far. Heist movies eventually have us demanding a return on our intellectual investment. Unfortunately, that return here only amounts to a wash. Thematic setups come full circle, but incorporations of deus ex machina (or unbelievable solutions to dire problems) insinuate a lack of greater brainpower. Its trickery is based less on true cleverness than it is on bending logic. Indeed, the characters do more to outsmart each other than the film does to outsmart us. Now, there’s no rule that says a story based on the principles of slight-of-hand needs to manipulate its audience like David Copperfield. That said, an impressive psychological gymnastics stunt would have made the ending that much more rewarding.
“Inside Man” stressed paying attention to the rules. “The Prestige” stressed how a properly-performed trick renders its audience psychologically helpless. “Focus” stresses us to guard ourselves from misdirection. These films relate in that they tell us the rules of their games and then ask us to play along. Most would say the latter two beat us fairly at their own games, but “Focus” shows more concern with securing a happy ending. What is perhaps most frustrating is that it probably could have done both if it were in better hands. (Such a compromise would have likely resembled 1998’s heist/romance “Out of Sight,” in which the sultry leads don’t live happily ever after, but the added cohesiveness would have been its own reward.) Ultimately, however, what will lure audiences to “Focus” is the play between Smith and Robbie, and it’s that play that will leave them feeling mostly satisfied.
3 out of 4 stars
See It/Rent It/Skip It: See it.