Smith and Robbie’s chemistry carries Focus through its weaker moments, but its strongest moments are all about the con and result in a very simple pleasure being fulfilled by an ultimately simple film.
For more than half its runtime, Focus works brilliantly as an introduction to the world of the con artist, to the little and the big tricks of the trade. While the film refuses to maintain this genre throughout, sometimes to its detriment, it’s still an effective and entertaining movie. Nicky (Will Smith) has been a con artist for most of his life, while Jess (Margot Robbie) is hungry to break into the game. He reluctantly takes her on as his ‘intern’ and shows her the tricks of the trade, but things become more complicated when they become romantically involved.
Both Smith and Robbie are excellent, with the latter continuing to prove herself capable of sharing and even stealing the screen from icons. Smith meanwhile returns after the very disappointing After Earth to remind us all that he’s still about as charming and funny as it gets – more than a few of the comedic grace notes of Focus are sold on his facial expressions. Barely a scene goes by when they’re both off-screen, and the script conspires to keep them together from start to finish. Thanks to their chemistry this works, but it’s also key to the film’s downfall.
The first half of Focus is all about the tricks of the con, and it’s a very detailed, almost over-laden with exposition look at that world. It’s also the most fun the film has. The cast around the two leads are all game for a laugh, with Brennan Brown as Smith’s straight-laced partner being a particular highlight. Nicky takes Jess to New Orleans for practice stealing and tricking multiple marks, and seeing them rob people blind. However, in the second half of the film the romance becomes the focus. Although there is a con going on, in all of their interactions Jess and Nicky talk about themselves and their relationship. It’s a frustrating tone for the movie to adopt because it feels so pedestrian. There are several times that Focus genuinely surprises – not to spoil the moment, but one shot completely subverts our perspective of the scene with the use of mirrors. When the con comes back into play at the very end, it doesn’t feel like part of the plan; the big reveal doesn’t work and the suspense is killed.
This would have been the nail in the coffin of a con film, but Focus turns out not to be all about the con in the end. It’s surprisingly funny, charming, and a legitimately gorgeous film. At the centre of it all is the relationship between Jess and Nicky. If it can’t follow the advice on its own poster (the tagline reads “Never drop the con”), it still ends on a unique note, one that absolutely fits the film that was shown before it.
Focus (2014), directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa, and is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Certificate 15.