One of the most striking sequences in Focus – it even opens the trailer – features a villainous henchman buying zip ties, duct tape, and a mouth guard at a convenience store before having a quick bite to eat. He gets in his car for a casual drive, puts on the mouth guard and a bike helmet, slowly starts to accelerate, and wham! Smashes into a car containing con artists played by Will Smith and Margot Robbie. At that point, he takes in the dazed pair at gunpoint.
It’s the perfect plan. Charged to bring in these characters alive, the henchman meticulously plans and undertakes a strategy that could have easily killed both of them and seriously injured himself, in front of dozens of witnesses who will immediately report the incident to police. He obviously knows exactly where they are and where they’re going, and could bring them in covertly at any point, but the near-fatal car crash tells these guys he really means business.
We’ve seen things like this before: the villain comes out of nowhere to blindside and incapacitate the hero. Usually, we see it from the hero’s point of view, and don’t have time to think about the villain’s illogical thought process; but that’s exactly what filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa linger on here, taking up minutes of screen time.
This scene emblematic of Focus as a whole: detailed, complex ruses that are ultimately revealed to be completely illogical. But I’m a sucker for con artist movies – heck, I even found a lot to like about Now You See Me – and had a lot of fun with Focus guessing the twists and turns before rolling my eyes at the revelations. Focus is certainly no match for the greats – which include The Sting, Paper Moon, The Grifters, House of Games – but it’s a decent-enough ride, most of the way.
Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a Brooklyn con man whose gift of grift has been passed down through the generations; Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) is Jess Barrett, a hot young upstart looking to get in on the game. Their meet cute occurs when Jess seduces Nicky, takes him up to her hotel room, and pulls the old jealous husband gag.
The stuff between Nicky and Jess works just fine, although Smith and Robbie don’t share a whole lot of chemistry. But what I didn’t like about the early scenes of Focus, as Nicky trains Jess in the art of the con, is the types of scams they pull: snagging wallets and watches, skimming credit card information from unsuspecting Superbowl tourists in New Orleans. These aren’t the happy-go-lucky confidence men of The Sting; they’re straight-up pickpockets, fraudsters, and thieves.
Things get better when the pair – along with a team that includes Farhad (Adrian Martinez) and Horst (Kevin Spacey lookalike Brennan Brown) – turn their sights onto more deserving marks. But a bout with bets-on-anything millionaire Liyuan (BD Wong) feels like it was pulled from an episode of Seinfeld (Kramer’s airport gambling session) and culminates in a $2 million round of… guess what number I’m thinking of? I won’t spoil the details of this elaborate con, but… Pfft. C’mon.
Three years later, we find Nicky in Argentina, commissioned to pull an elaborate con for billionaire automobile racing team owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), under the watchful eye of Owens (Gerald McRaney), Garriga’s security detail. At one of Garriga’s parties, he casually runs into Jess, who is now the billionaire’s girlfriend and has retired from the con game. Uh-huh.
There are two things that no con artist movie should do: intentionally misdirect the audience with scenes that wouldn’t exist unless the filmmakers are trying to fool us, and rely on huge coincidences as major plot points. We accept (and even expect) coincidences to litter thrillers and action movies, but not a film where we’re trying to figure out the intricate puzzle for much of the running time.
Focus fails on both counts: there’s a scene between Smith and another character – alone in a hotel room – that makes absolutely no sense when final revelations come about; internal logic be damned, it’s there only to fool the audience. And that huge coincidence that we think must be part of the final plan? Nope, it was just a coincidence all along.
But while the results may not be satisfying, it’s fun trying to work out all the angles of Focus while the game is underway. Smith carries the bulk of the picture with his effortless charisma, but it’s Robbie – proving that her commanding performance in The Wolf of Wall Street was no fluke – that really lights up the screen; that makes the film’s disposable treatment of her character even worse. A colorful supporting cast helps keep things lively.
Don’t focus too much on the plot mechanics and you’ll have fun here.
Apollo Robbins, sleight-of-hand artist and “theatrical pickpocket”, served as the film’s technical consultant.