Will Smith’s latest movie, the heist-pulling con-comedy drama, Focus, is clichéd, it’s predictable, but it is hard to hate.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Firstly, set up the characters and assemble a team; pull a few small jobs; set up the big one and look like they’ve failed before– SURPRISE! [That] wasn’t the real con. [THIS] was. It’s a format that has always served the genre well and continues to do so, regardless of how artistically it may be presented from time to time. From Steven Soderbergh to Guy Ritchie. From The Hustler to The Thieves. Sometimes it works more successfully than others, of course, but it never really strays too far away from that traditional stratagem. Focus is no exception.
Written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who have previously worked together on the feature films Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Philip Morris, they reunite to bring their own spin on the con film. Staring the ever-popular Will Smith as Nicky, a professional con-man from a family of con-men, and rising-actress Margot Robbie as his protégé, Jess, they bring their own brand of humour and sex-appeal to what is essentially a disappointingly bland script.
The narrative of the film (or its focus, if you will) is based around the relationship of Nicky and Jess. After Jess tries and fails to pull her own amateur con on Nicky, unaware of who he actually is, she eventually convinces him to take her under his wing after what can loosely be described as a job interview. A series of small but well paying jobs later, a hint of romance between the couple blossoms and gambling problems and presents itself, before the biggest job they’ll ever pull appears. It’s nothing outstanding and certainly something you’ve no doubt never seen before (unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid watching any con-man film during your lifetime.)
Let’s get the performances out of the way first of all. To use modern parlance, Will Smith’s gonna Will Smith. He likes to show off his physique, so every other scene where he’s not looking pukka in a suit either shows him in a tight shirt or no shirt at all. His comic timing hasn’t yet deserted him which does make him perfect for the role. He’s charismatic, he’s funny, he’s just reliable ol’ Will bloody Smith putting in a shift that’s at a level somewhere between his Anchorman 2 cameo and Men In Black 3. His opposite, Margot Robbie, does what few actors and actresses manage to do when sharing the screen with the Fresh Prince, in that she often steals the spotlight away from him, much like she often did with DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Despite having to deal with a much weaker character, whose role as exciting young pick pocket is snatched away from you before you’ve noticed and replaced with generic love interest, she still lights up the screen with her enthusiasm and humour. In fact, on a number of occasions, her conversations with ‘sidekick to the stars’ Adrian Martinez were the most natural and genuinely funny moments in the entire movie. It made me wish I had a friend like Martinez.
The thing is, the performances aren’t the issue here. Even the series of escalating con-jobs the characters pull aren’t a problem either. We all watch films like this knowing exactly how the story will pan out and what level of character we’re soon to be dealing with. What we all hope to see instead are creative and inventive cons, heists, twists and swindles. It doesn’t have to be tense, the jobs don’t even have to be on a grand casino-robbing scale, so long as they’re entertaining and fun. To be fair to Focus, it isn’t intelligent, it isn’t clever and the twists are polarised from the get go. Nevertheless, they still remain the most entertaining aspects, as they quite rightly should.
I can’t complain about the build up to the individual jobs, both large and small, because quite frankly the fast-cuts and jazzy music simply makes them hard to dislike. As soon as Robbie is strutting through a packed street, pinching wallets and slipping off watches, it’s all made to look so incredibly slick. A scene at a football stadium that sees the culmination of (admittedly well plotted) teasing is both predictable… and, surprisingly, absorbing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll think you know how everything is going to pan out eventually anyway, but it’s that need to see the film to its conclusion that will keep you rooted to your seat.
Therefore, whilst it undoubtedly has a badly written and predictable story, full of genre clichés and obvious twists, I can’t complain too much about the cons. If I were feeling generous, I’d probably even describe them as well directed. Focus is, if nothing else, impressively and suitably flashy. At worst, these fancy-Dan jobs are diversionary tactics to keep you from thinking too hard about the intelligence insultingly poor “who’s playing who” romance angle between Robbie and Smith. It tries to keep you guessing right until the end. Unfortunately, you’re not wondering what will happen, it’s more that you’ll be wondering when it will inevitably be revealed. It’s infuriating how often they felt the need to explain away events and how it will relate to events-yet-to-be.
Still, as I say, it’s hard to dislike. Occasionally I sat up and took notice at how well it had been cut and edited; just little things, like when Jess walks into a clothes shop, or as they’re pulling a few minor con jobs during her “interview”, or (as seen in the trailer) when a maniac smashes his car into Will Smith’s sporty little two-seater Peugeot etc. Evidently Requa and Ficarra know how to shoot and write stunts more so than they know how to build character relationships worth emotionally investing in.
Conversely, at other times, I was practically stifling laughs at how awkward and downright terrible it was. A super-serious-sex-scene that I assumed was being played for laughs, given how early on they make reference to the fact that Jess can’t “play” men and is utterly crap at being sexy, wasn’t actually meant to be so funny. It was a genuine, proper, “please take me seriously” sex scene that just happened to be absolutely dreadful. If there’s one problem between the dynamic of Robbie and Smith, it was that romantic chemistry just never sparked.
Overall then, as I said on last week’s podcast, it’s painfully obvious right from the get go exactly what sort of movie Focus is going to be, but it’s hard to hate it. If you can do your utmost to stop second guessing it, just sit back and let things play out as intended, then it does have a number of redeeming qualities. It’s funny when it wants to be, the jobs they pull are aren’t the most daring of any con-man film I’ve ever seen but are set at just the right tempo, but it won’t be anything new to regular film watchers. It plugs the gap of this year’s dumb but flashy light hearted thriller. To compare it to recent con-films, it’s more Now You See Me than it is American Hustle. Fine to watch if there’s nothing else on at the cinema and you’ve got a burning desire to munch some popcorn, but not really a particularly special film.
Focus is released in cinemas nationwide tomorrow (27 Feb). You can hear Owen talk about the film on last week’s Failed Critics podcast with Steve, Matt and Paul.