The best heist movies are very rarely about the score itself. The worst ones spend too much time on it; coming up with a clever crime, making it complicated enough to cause friction amongst the cons, and delivering enough twists to keep the audience in the dark. It’s a chore, and most movies simply can’t pull off it off. Writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who last directed the rom-com Crazy Stupid Love, have figured where the strengths in Focus lie. The aces up Focus‘ sleeve are gorgeous stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who are so distractingly good they could pick our pockets blind.
Smith, who has been in idling in a junk heap the last couple of years, finally opens up and lets himself be cool again. To say it’s a relief to see him have fun in something not titled Men in Black is an understatement. He plays Nicky Spurgeon, a Yoda of the con man game so slick he could sell ice to an Eskimo. He could steal the shoes right off your feet, and convince you barefoot is in style. He’s the best, and isn’t afraid to let himself be the mark for a novice grifter named Jess (Robbie), a stunner looking for an easy score. But Nicky’s too smart for that, and in a serious of slickly-edited encounters he schools her on the basics of the con. She’s beautiful and Nicky knows it; but Jess seems unaware how to use that to her advantage. Of course sparks begin to fly between the two, but when people live their lives hiding their emotions, trust is always going to be a problem.
The action soon leads to New Orleans on “Super Bowl” weekend, where Nicky teaches Jess how things REALLY work in this racket. One of the best things Focus does is shoot down the myth of the “long con” that unfortunately rules every heist movie. “It doesn’t exist” he tells her; and Nicky’s business is really just that; a business. It’s an extremely illegal, precisely-managed business full of weird gadgets, get rich quick schemes, and literally dozens of pickpockets on the payroll. The point is despite the expensive trinkets, famous people, and glamorous locales, being a con man is work; ugly and dirty. Of course, so is the game of love, and people who lie as a way of life are notoriously bad at playing it. Sparks fly between Jess and Nicky, but after a risky (meaning ludicrous), big money scheme pays off, he kicks her to the curb and they go separate ways.
Focus both embraces and sidesteps the clichés of the genre, and perhaps the best example of the latter is how the second half plot isn’t much of a con at all. It’s a fairly straight-forward romance in which Nicky attempts to win back Jess’ love. Of course, his way of doing that is through a fairly uninteresting con in Buenos Aires, one involving a race car mogul (Rodrigo Santoro) who happens to be Nicky’s boyfriend. While this part of the film simply can’t carry the same level of energy, the payoff is pretty great and the ride we’re taken on is worth it. Requa and Ficarra use a number of sweet visual tricks, including one that is suggested in the film’s title. One of their best-looking scenes is a subtle one involving a department store mirror. But the smartest thing the directors due is simply focus on the stars. It may be superficial as Hell to talk about how stunning Margot Robbie is, but it’s simply the truth and the filmmakers use everything at their disposal to highlight her. Her chemistry with Will Smith is off the charts, and he seems motivated like he hasn’t been in years. Gerald McRaney is a hoot as a crusty old bodyguard with a dislike of anything modern, and Adrian Martinez (the “Discount Double Check” guy from the commercials) steals the show as Farhad, the team’s sex-obsessed oddball.
“You die with the lie”, Nicky tells Jess early on, and Focus follows a similar mandate. Ultimately, the film presents itself as more complicated than it actually turns out to be. Some may be disappointed that so many twists and turns are easily figured out (although one was a legitimate surprise), but others will be having so much fun they won’t mind playing along.