“It’s all about focus,” Nicky (Will Smith) explains to his willing con artist protégé Jess (Margot Robbie). He’s talking about successful pickpocketing – the way that staring into someone’s eyes will draw their focus to your face rather than your hands, and similar tricks designed to facilitate sleight of hand – but we are expected to understand, as an audience, that he’s also talking about Focus. We’ve seen enough con-man movies to understand that they tend to function as con artists in of themselves, tricking the audience into believing one thing while executing another – the all-important twist.
The twists of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus – and there are a few, as you’d expect – are fairly pedestrian; generally anti-climactic. But the film’s primary failing is not the specifics of its con but its inability to draw your attention away from the tricks it’s pulling. Ironically, the one thing that Focus really lacks is a clear sense of focus.
This is not to say that there isn’t a lot to focus on; specifically, pretty people in pretty places wearing pretty things. It all looks very expensive in that consumerist, escapist kind of way. You either want to look like Margot Robbie and have Will Smith (who’s looking amazing at forty-seven, by the by) or vice versa. You want to have their clothes, their jewellery, their cars, their fancy box seats at the Superbowl. It’s pretty and shiny enough to provide some distraction.
But what the film needs is a sense of purpose. Compare it to Ur-conman film, The Sting, which features a pair of villains (Robert Shaw and Charles Durning), a clear purpose and a compelling romance – or bromance, if you prefer – between Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Focus’ “villain”, wealthy racing figure Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro, another one of those pretty people), doesn’t appear til halfway through the film and it’s never clear if we’re supposed to fear, despise or pity him. There’s no purpose to speak of (beyond the straightforward ‘rip people off, earn some money’ of course) and the romance between Smith and Robbie is unconvincing. They’re both charismatic, capable actors, but they never sell a connection between beyond physical attraction. It doesn’t help that you’re second-guessing the authenticity of their dalliance throughout, simply because there’s little else to focus on than puzzling out how the film is tricking you.
It’s not that Focus is a dire film, by any stretch. Beyond all the prettiness, there are a handful of bravura sequences that sparkle, that suggest a greater film that never quite eventuates. There’s some wonderful work from editor Jan Kovac (editing his first feature, in fact) in establishing a jaunty rhythm as Nicky introduces Jess to the scope of their Vegas scams and thefts. The scene set in the aforementioned box of the Superbowl is a genuinely good piece of audience trickery that makes extremely clever use of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” while a initially puzzling scene following an anonymous henchmen buying a mouthguard from a pharmacy has a clever payoff.
But these moments are let down by a consistently mediocre screenplay. To really delve into its problems, I’m forced to venture into spoiler territory, so if you’ve yet to see the film I’d recommend you stop reading at this point.
The Superbowl scam is, for the most part, cleverly written. A notorious gambler named Liyuan (BD Wong) is relieved of a couple million dollars in an elaborate scheme where Nicky’s crew engineers a sequence of events where they can guarantee he’ll pick a particular player off the field, executed with some precise, subconscious suggestion. Nicky’s able to escalate a series of bets to such a high total by pretending to be a problem gambler – fooling both Jess and the audience – and outlaws the specifics of the plan to Jess (and, again, the audience) after succeeding. But as he concludes his explanation, he makes a slip that’s minor in of itself, but suggests the lack of thought endemic to Focus’ screenplay. Asked by Jess what he would do if Liyuan picked the ‘wrong’ player initially, Nicky replies with a shrug: “Keep doubling until he picks him.”
Simply put, this plan wouldn’t work. The film’s already established that Jess – drawn unknowingly into the scheme – would identify the same player as Liyuan to resolve the bet, since the “player” is actually a plant, a member of Nicky’s crew called Farhad (Adrian Martinez) with a fondness for juvenile gay jokes. So once Jess has called out Farhad’s number – 55 – there’s no chance Liyuan would pick that player on a second, or third bet. No doubt, this is nit-picking to an extreme degree, but the fact this goes by unquestioned in the film suggests the screenplay’s undeserved faith in Nicky.
Nicky glides through the events of Focus untouched; perfect. Oh, sure, he ends the film with a bullet wound and his ‘dad’ absconding with a few million Euros, but this is a last minute corrective that still leaves him in a good position – free of suspicion, Jess on his arm. I’ve heard various arguments regarding Focus as an allegory – as an interrogation of gender roles, as a representation of filmmaking, as a prismatic take on celebrity via an established star and a young ingénue – but, personally, all I took away from the film was a shallow reinforcement of male supremacy. The film doesn’t question Nicky – his motives, his confidence – while repeatedly establishing Jess as incompetent, even parasitic.
Over at The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert describes Focus as “100 minutes of mansplaining” and I couldn’t agree more. Jess relies on Nicky for tutelage – because she’s a “dyslexic foster kid” – and proves herself a successful sidekick but a fairly incompetent con artist in her own right (three years after her ‘training’, she’s still just stealing watches). The whole film I kept expecting a dramatic twist that revealed Jess had actually carefully manipulated Micky by presenting herself as a dumb blonde, a façade of false incompetence. Nope, turns out she’s just as she appears, and turns out Focus has disappointingly little substance beyond its shiny surface.