By Kyle G. King. Well-dressed, attractive people driving expensive cars and exchanging witty dialogue in a battle of smarts: It’s not the most original premise for a film, but in the right hands it can be a damn entertaining one. Those particular hands that craft the globe-trotting crime dramedy Focus belong to Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writer-director duo behind 2009’s I Love You, Phillip Morris and 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. But the hands that do most of the heavy lifting are an electric Margot Robbie and a return-to-form Will Smith.
You won’t have to wait for 2016’s Suicide Squad to get a taste of the chemistry between Robbie and Smith; Focus cashes in on the innate charisma of both actors with a multitude of scenes that play out like verbal kung fu matches: In the lush hotels and bars of New York City, a swindle gone wrong introduces small-timer Jess Barrett (Robbie) to the notorious and world renowned mega-thief Nicky Spurgeon (Smith). Jess hopes to graduate from lifting wallets and wristwatches to Nicky’s caliber of multi-million dollar cons, the sort that involve huge scores on professional football championships (just don’t say Super Bowl; Focus didn’t get the rights). Although she’s treated mostly like a sexy lamp by nearly every male character around her, this lamp has a keen eye and uses any apparent weaknesses in her character to distract while she lifts a $200,000 wristwatch right off a well-tanned arm.
Her character might not have the potency of an original character, and some scenes certainly sidestep into some misogynistic territory, but Margot Robbie’s brand of self aware sexiness elevates Jess to a level that is right on par with Nicky himself, without which much of the movie’s dynamic (and its stakes) would crumble into nothing. She may be the newbie (at 24, half Smith’s age, which what?), but she sets things straight when she tracks Nicky down to audition for his band of merry thieves in a scene that will certainly garner Robbie more high paid work in the future. “Can we skip the part where I speak through thinly veiled allure and lead you to believe there’s some Earth shattering hump in the works?” shouldn’t make you forgive the more sexist themes at work (and the fact that Nicky gets a gripping backstory and Jess gets zilch), but lines like that will at least help you swallow them (and definitely put you on Jess’ side for the schism to come).
Three years after the football con (and a dramatic lover’s betrayal), the film meets up with Nicky in Buenos Aires as he begins a job on Formula One team president Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). But just when Nicky is set to make his first big move, he discovers Jess is also in the City of Fair Winds – and quite close to Garriga. As the two thieves are pitted against each other – and then brought together, only to be set against each other again – it all becomes difficult to gauge whose side anyone is actually on. Motivations become hazy and a lot of the drama we are supposed to care about begins to ache with contrivance.
While the film always maintains its theme of mistrust and manipulation, which helps in creating empathy for each character, you don’t ever care much for Nicky and Jess’ love affair. Unfortunately the script hangs too heavily on it. (Smith and Robbie do enough to make you root for them as individual characters, but other than acknowledging the red hot sex you know they have to be having, the idea of the two characters being “right” for each other never really registers.)
Films dealing with cons, heists, and the like demand a savvy story structure with plenty of twists and turns. A story like this needs to dazzle, and while Focus has plenty to offer, it becomes exhausting before long. (You’ll find yourself asking, “is this authentic or a con?” far too often.) The time spent on this tug-of-war between truth and lies would have been better spent on developing Nicky’s “betrayal” or establishing the pair as something more than just two very attractive people in the same line of work. That savvy structure curves into a multitude of complicated story arcs that aim to read as genius, but they more often end up as downright confusing.
With an R rating, a beautiful landscape, and the mere presence of Will Smith, Focus is a perfectly timed February release to belay those winter doldrums. It should reset Smith’s career in the minds of anyone who became pessimistic after the failure of After Earth and a few other questionable moves (Men In Black 3 was great; I will hear nothing more), and should also deservedly cement Margot Robbie as a major star. Remember to Focus. Then remember to do it again.