FOCUS Review: Too Many Cons
They used to call Will Smith “Mr. July” because of his string of successful big-budget summer popcorn movies that began in the mid-1990s (most notably 1996’s Independence Day and 1997’s Men in Black). And career numbers certainly support Smith’s overall success. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, Smith is ranked 20th on the all-time box office list with his films having earned a combined total of over $2.76 billion. What’s remarkable in that context is that he has the 2nd-fewest number of films (21) of anyone in the Top 20, behind only Orlando Bloom (in 17th place with over $2.81 billion from 17 films, half of which have to do with Hobbits, Pirates, or Lords of Rings). That said, the summer isn’t endless, Smith’s hot streak eventually cooled, and a quick glance at the calendar (or the thermometer) offers an instant reminder this isn’t July – it’s late February.
In his newest release, Focus, Smith plays Nicky, a seasoned con-man who finds himself in the rare position of being a mark, albeit to a pair of amateurs who get nothing from him but a tough lesson. He lets the male con artist go, but the female, Jess (Margot Robbie), intrigues him. He invites her to be something of an intern in his highly organized, highly successful 30-person crew that specializes in everything from pick-pocketing to credit card fraud. Jess learns a lot in a short amount of time, and while the crew is in target-rich New Orleans for a faux Super Bowl, she and Nicky begin a romantic relationship. Once the trip is over, though, they part ways on less than amicable terms.
Three years later, Nicky and Jess run into each other in Buenos Aires. He’s running a solo con and she has found happiness – and wealth – as the girlfriend of successful Formula 1 driver Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Still, there seem to be some sparks left between Nicky and Jess, but both soon learn that love and lies don’t mix.
Once the frivolity of the Meet Cute between Nicky and Jess is dispensed with (mercifully quickly), the first act of Focus crackles with energy. Nicky gives a narrated education to Jess about how the crew works – from the front-end execution and intricacies of pickpocketing and theft in a crowded city, to the back-end factory where the credit card fraud and property liquidation take place. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa present this at a blistering pace (with great help by first-time editor Jan Kovac), and the best part is they never cheat. Their scene blocking and camera movement clearly show how teams of two, three, or more work in flawlessly synchronized harmony. Despite their non-violent nature, the scenes play like well-orchestrated martial arts pieces, and never suggest camera or FX trickery at time.
But it’s as if Ficarra and Requa, who also wrote the screenplay, sold the idea of the entire movie based on only the first act, and without having any of the rest of the story fleshed out. Thoughtful and meticulous detail about the construct of small, intricate cons gives way to a lot of gorgeous and flashy scenes, but in terms of substance they offer a silly “trust us on this” con that wanders into painted-corner territory, only to be rescued by throwing twists at the audience. It’s difficult to elaborate without getting into spoiler territory, but the most surprising aspect of the rest of the film is that despite how simple the con actually is, its presentation is terribly convoluted. Even at a running time of 1:45, it feels like a lot of time is wasted.
And wasted it is, on the wholly unbelievable relationship between Nicky and Jess. It never works for a few reasons. The first is that a two-week fling three years prior is not going generate the kind of hand-wringing over each other these two characters do three years later. The second is that for all of the deftness of direction found with the New Orleans scams, the directors struggle – and mightily – to properly shoot intimate personal scenes between Nicky and Jess. That doesn’t mean just sex scenes; it also means basics like conversations over wine or chats in bed in the morning or so forth. These scenes – and there are many – grind the film to clumsy halts with too many close-ups, too many scenes of each of them speaking while the other is OFF camera, and too many out-of-focus-for-overt-effect shots.
Third? Smith and Robbie have no chemistry whatsoever. On his own and despite the weak later material, Smith is quite good in this role. It requires the natural charm he has, but he’s also able to tap into his personal career of “conning” people (as an actor pretending to be others) to deliver a world-weary performance that suits him well. Robbie is perfectly fine, although the role has very little depth to it. (The directors take the opportunity to showcase Robbie’s beauty, of course, including several costume changes that include everything from a stunning red gown to a bikini and heels.) When they are together, though, and with the exception of a sizable con set-piece that takes place near the end of the first act (featuring B.D. Wong), there is never a moment where Smith and Robbie believably connect.
When your entire film is built on the foundation that two people have something – and the two actors playing them don’t have anything – your story is in trouble.
Focus starts out great, following in the footsteps of some of the terrific con films (it pays homage to) by being confident and strong enough to let the audience be a part of the con. Once the film abandons that approach, though, and relies instead on weak deception and convenient twists, the audience is no longer the film’s partner. Instead, the audience becomes the film’s mark, and no one wants to be taken like that.