How invested can you get in a film where you can’t trust anything that’s on screen, let alone any of the characters’ motivations?
From The Sting through to American Hustle, the con-artist thriller is a genre known for its slickness, its unpredictability and slight-of-hand. In the case of Focus, though, that slickness is a 104-minute slip-and-slide that, a few sticking points aside, is likely to leave you more or less emotionally untouched.
Will Smith stars as Nicky Spurgeon, a lean, self-assured professional, a master of misdirection with a team that’s less Ocean’s Eleven and more technologically advanced Baker Street Irregulars. Then a seemingly chance encounter introduces him to Jess (Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie), a lithe, flirty ingénue who quickly becomes his protégé and, perhaps, something more. But, as Nicky repeatedly says, there’s no room for heart in this business; not for long.
To reveal what follows would rob Focus of its crucial charm – attractive people doing interesting things – but Smith and Robbie sell it well. Dry and offbeat, Smith is less cocky than his usual persona, but sells both Nicky’s self-assured humor and charisma. Some recent career missteps aside (After Earth and a series of pointless cameos), Focus goes some way to reminding us why he was once one of the most influential stars on the planet.
Adrian Martinez is lovable as the self-deprecatingly corpulent “Fat-Ass” Farhad and BD Wong has a whale of a time as the scene-stealing Liyuan – with his cigar and shit-eating grin, he brings to mind an Asian Powers Boothe. Wong’s single scene, in the sky-box of a New Orleans football stadium, is also Focus’ dramatic high-point, an impulsive doubling down on stakes and character, which comes like a shot of adrenaline, or a kick to the chest.
Excluding, perhaps, Gerald McRaney as a crotchety old-school enforcer, the film’s supposed threat, involving Rodrigo Santoro as a callow race-car owner, never really feels pressing. The characters are ultimately less interesting than the processes of the world they inhabit; a sequence following an unnamed henchman preparing to take unusual action is potentially fascinating – he certainly seems to be someone with some history to him, at least.
Focus is a film that, thirty years ago, might well have been made by Michael Mann (and likely starred James Caan), but, as conceived of and directed today by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, it’s simply stylish, smart, amusing; a $50 million bauble, highly watchable but immediately forgettable.
Less of the so-called Toledo Panic Button and more to get worked up about might have helped to make Focus essential viewing rather than just a diverting cinema trip.