I’ve been pickpocketed before and I can say with fair certainty that it was not exactly a endearing experience. Yet, movies and literature have used pickpockets as their protagonists before, whether it be in the form of Charles Dickens’ young “Oliver” or the dynamic duo of Newman and Redford in “The Sting.” We end up being charmed by these thieves, who always seem to stand on some high moral ground. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa return to this familiar trope for their latest outing, “Focus,” starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie.
Smith and Robbie do their jobs well as they will con the audience with their charm, chemistry, and gorgeous mugs into enjoying “Focus” much more than they probably should, because without them this movie lacks much to sink your teeth into.
“Focus” owes everything that it has to Smith and Robbie, who came into the film on two different trajectories but who each got exactly what they needed out of it. Robbie, coming off her big breakout in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” proved that she has what it takes to be a movie star, going toe to toe with one of the biggest around. However, that sparkle has been waning for Smith prior to this. After the debacle that was “After Earth,” Smith returns to familiar territory and is able to pick himself back up. By no means is it a stellar performance, in fact it is only perhaps slightly more than Smith on cruise control, but the result is a positive one nonetheless.
Together, Smith and Robbie make for the ideal duo for this film. As Smith’s Nicky explains early on, the art of the con is about deception and keeping the marks’ focus on you rather than what you are doing. Well Smith and Robbie were the perfect eye candy to distract us with their banter and sexual tension that its enough to distract from the less than thrilling movie going on.
Despite being another addition to the proud line of movies about con artists, they forget to do the things that have made them successful in the past, mainly the big con and the moral superiority over their mark. Smith once again provides the answer to that in the film, as those things are a fantasy, but “Focus” could have used a little of that.
The first half of “Focus” is promising; Nicky takes Jess (Robbie) under his wing as they steal and bamboozle targets during the week of a football championship in New Orleans – couldn’t call it the Super Bowl, even though they do reference it. They’re all small jobs, pulling wallets and watches off of people as they walk down Bourbon Street mostly. During this time Nicky and Jess start their romantic relationship.
With the week over, Nicky and Jess are able to snag tickets to the big game. Nicky and Jess get caught up in a bunch of wages with a rich gambler played by BD Wong. The seriousness of the bets and the amount of money continues to go up as Nicky gives in to his gambling addiction, culminating into an impossible bet with all of the money they earned over the week on the table. However, as Jess soon realizes, it was another con, and they walk away with the money.
This is by far the most exciting scene in the movie, and it comes halfway in. The movies “big con” isn’t one. Sure it has twists and a whole lot of money, but there’s no tension to it, no master plan that we see enact before our eyes. It is routine and boring. Not only that, but we don’t care about why he’s pulling it off because the mark, played by Rodrigo Santoro, is nothing. A racecar owner who was trying to get a competitive edge isn’t exactly the scum of the earth. So no big finale, and no one really to root against led to a lackluster finish.
Though it is obvious that the actual con was never the top priority for Ficarra and Requa. They were more interested in the relationship between Smith and Robbie’s characters. Yes, they are charming and the actors are able to keep you interested enough to enjoy the movie, but it’s predictable. It could have been so much better if they had added those fantasies, as they put it, to add some meat to the bones of this story.
“Focus” doesn’t necessarily require too much of yours, so if you’re looking for an easy film to kick and back and take for what it is, you’ll find a suitable dance partner here.