After watching Focus, I thought back to a great line from Will Smith’s con artist character Nicky Spurgeon, in which he proclaims, “There’s two kinds of people in this world. There’s hammers and nails. You decide which one you want to be.” It’s a powerful and chilling line of dialogue that emphasizes Nicky’s need to exert power and control over others in order to be successful in his indecent business. The problem with the film, however, is that it treats its audience like we’re all as dumb as nails.
Unfortunately, therein lies the film’s biggest problem. While I do think there is some merit in its depiction of the con game, Focus for the most part is unconvincing. Not only did I feel like I was being conned by the characters, but I felt like I was being conned by the legitimacy of the cons themselves. Most of them are quite a stretch, to say the least, but more troublesome is that their successful outcomes don’t ever feel truly earned. Everything just cleans up too neatly, due to some inane level of planning that relies on far too many improbable factors and additionally treats every mistake as if it was part of the plan all along. Therefore, trying to take Focus seriously is something of a brain-numbing exercise. While the film itself is fairly entertaining, it’s not nearly as smart as it thinks it is.
As a viewer, it feels like there’s not much of a pay-off in watching them pull off their successful schemes, and that’s largely because we’re left out of the loop. We the audience are being played the whole time. We’re not given any room for our own participation and guesswork because the movie gives us no clues to help us solve the puzzle. Yet it’s inviting us to look for answers by emphasizing the importance of being focused and aware, while withholding any and all necessary clues to help us make sense of what is happening along the way.
In Focus, Will Smith plays con-man Nicky, who meets a beautiful woman named Jess (Margot Robbie) while dining alone one night. After inviting Nicky to her hotel room, Jess attempts to con him with the help of a friend, but ultimately fails. After all, you can’t hustle a hustler. Being eager to learn more, Jess wants Nicky to take her under his wing and teach her the art of his craft. What ensues is a steamy relationship and a partnership in deception.
Jess proves to be a natural in the con game, quickly earning the respect and admiration of Nicky, who allows her to join his thirty-strong crew. This team of crooks racks up millions through swindling, hustling, and pickpocketing. It’s fun to watch the action unfold, but a little disconcerting that it glorifies these criminals while they’re plainly stealing from innocent strangers. Make no mistake about it, Focus portrays them as the good guys, and offers little to no consequence for their devious actions. Still, it’s hard to root against this cast of con-artists, and you’ll want to see how they manage to get away with it all.
Instead, Focus tries to make you believe there isn’t any con in play at all, only to later pull out the rug to reveal a highly ludicrous scenario. It feels dishonest and cheap, like it’s essentially cheating its way to the desired outcome without doing the work to get there. It’s selling its own capers short and taking the fun out of them. Thus even the climax of the film feels disjointed because we can’t believe what we’re seeing and just have to watch incredulously as we wait for the inevitable far-fetched explanation.
Despite the shortcomings of the cons, I would like to express that the film still does plenty of things right. First and foremost, Will Smith shines in his performance, adding enough perplexity to his character to keep you on your toes. He makes it hard to tell whether or not his character Nicky is bluffing, which helps add to the tension of scenes. Even when Nicky appears to break character and let his guard down, I still found myself guessing about his true intentions. While the movie is overall somewhat of a letdown, I can safely say that Will Smith absolutely nails it.
The only issue I had with Will Smith is his character’s obsession with Margot Robbie’s Jess. I’m sure many guys could attest to a Margot Robbie obsession, but I’m not one of those guys. While the chemistry between Smith and Robbie was fairly good, it did seem more than a tad blown out of proportion. The romance between them felt rushed and more lustful than loving. Still, Robbie gives a respectable performance of deception and allure.
I would like to particularly applaud the work of B.D. Wong, who plays a high-stakes roller that gambles with Nicky during the Super Bowl, in what is my personal favorite scene of the movie. The tension between Wong and Smith is absolutely electrifying, and they play off of each other extraordinarily well. I was on the edge of my seat throughout their whole encounter, only to have the moment spoiled by an absurd and unlikely final outcome.
The other performances are all adequate, though most of the characters are given little screen time, aside from Nicky’s perverted, overweight associate Farhad (Adrian Martinez) who musters up a few laughs. The dialogue can be pretty hit-or-miss, and the plot is rather thin, but the production values are outstanding. This is a film that is unmistakably beautiful to look at, with gorgeous sets and superb camera work. One particularly admirable scene has the camera placed in the passenger seat focused on a man who is gearing himself up before he deliberately crashes his car head-on into another. It’s a moment that feels like a strange detour, and yet it’s so bizarre and memorable that it just works.
Focus has the makings of an excellent film, but it regrettably drops the ball by fumbling the con game. If only the cons themselves weren’t so far-fetched and sloppy, the whole movie would have been a whole lot more effective. Despite the film’s insistence that you look closely, its most pivotal moments don’t hold up to any sort of analysis or scrutiny. In other words, this is a film that would be best enjoyed out of focus.