Like many people, I first became aware of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s work through their script for Bad Santa and their writing/directing with Crazy, Stupid, Love. Personally, I was more impressed with their 2009 directorial debut, I Love You Phillip Morris. So, Focus was a film that, while not necessarily holding my breath for, was something I kept keeping my eye on. It also doesn’t help that it stars two of the sexiest people on the planet, Will Smith and Adrian Martinez, err…I mean, Margot Robbie. The film follows Nicky (Will Smith, who) has made a life out of being a precise and calculated con-man. However, things seem to change a bit when he meets an inexperienced grifter, Jess (Margot Robbie), and takes her under his wing.
I’ve seen a lot of con movies, and the genre is at a point where it’s hard to stand out unless a film does something really unique, interesting, and unconventional or offers a different perspective. There are films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Confidence, Catch Me if You Can, The Grifters, Matchstick Men, The Sting, American Hustle or Sleuth (the 1973 original or the 2007 remake), the Oceans trilogy, The Brother’s Bloom, and The Lady Eve, among countless others. Does Focus do anything to make a mark that stands out of the crowd? Well, not really. It’s not particularly good, but at the same time, it’s a reasonably fun and relaxing experience. One could certainly apply the “all style, no substance” criticism, and it would be apt, but it hardly detracts from what the film is trying to do.
If there’s a film that I could compare Focus to, it would be the recent remake of The Gambler. Not necessarily because they share similar plot details, but in how they are both rarely shown R-rated, adult oriented dramas from major studios with a retro tone and intimate thematic ambitions. They both also share some of the same problems. I’d say that Focus is slightly better than The Gambler. The problems with the film stem mainly from its bizarre structure. It almost feels like the first half of the hour-forty-minute runtime could have been a film on its own, and the second half feels like the not-as-good sequel. There’s an odd disconnect that takes you out of the film for a moment. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. Another thing is that for me a great con movie will plant seeds of its big reveal (because you know there will be at least one) throughout the narrative, so that it adds up through multiple viewings. Focus doesn’t do this particularly well. There may be one off-hand comment that could connect with something that comes to light towards the end, but for the most part, many of the reveals felt like it came right out of thin air. I was also distracted by just how ridiculous some of the scenarios were. Many situations that the characters found themselves in relied way too much on luck and coincidence that it made them really hard to buy.
This sounds bad, but I think the final product we have is still something that works on a more visceral level. A lot of this comes from the characters and the performances behind them. It’s certainly not the worst thing in the world that the plot doesn’t quite work when you think about it. After all, one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2013, American Hustle, unabashedly threw its messy plot to the background, while putting the attention exclusively towards how the characters bounce off each other. Focus simply doesn’t crank it up to 11 the way American Hustle does. It still doesn’t take away the fact that the characters in Focus are strong and the actors are even stronger. Will Smith basically shows us why he’s one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and that he has not lost it despite a dip in recent years. He shows that he can go to some dark places, but also charm the pants off of you. He oozes more charisma in this film than most up-and-coming actors will not even pull off in their entire careers. He also has great chemistry with Margot Robbie, who demonstrates that Wolf of Wall Street was not a fluke. She has a great screen presence that is infectious with enthusiasm. The two could carry the film easily, but they have a wonderful supporting cast keeping things together. Adrian Martinez plays Nicky’s best friend, Farhad, an unashamedly vulgar guy who plays a fine line between being creepy and endearing, coming off as more of a harmless, but weird uncle whereas any other actor would have made him annoying. Rodrigo Santoro, Robert Taylor, Gerald McRaney and Brennan Brown round up a solid group of character actors who fit right into their roles and bounce off each other really well. BD Wong also shows up for one, but important scene, but he is so much fun to watch, it made the whole movie worth it for that one scene alone.
Focus isn’t as rough, risky or even as unique as a con movie should be. It’s a very flawed film, but it is still a thoroughly watchable film, which is sometimes all you need. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa provide for some fun and engaging dialogue and characters with a nice visual style that makes the film look like it’s in the same universe as those Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials. There are moments of brilliance, my favorite of which is unfortunately given away in the trailers, but at the end of the day, it’s basically like wallpaper. You don’t think too much about it, you just need it to look nice and stay that way. Focus is a fine looking film with fine lead actors doing what they do best, expecting anything of more substance would be asking too much at this point. Perhaps there will be more that the directors will offer in their next project, The Taliban Shuffle, a comedic war film written by Robert Carlock based on the memoirs of American journalist, Kim Barker, and her work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will star Tina Fey, Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman. Also, see I Love You Phillip Morris if you haven’t already.