FOCUS annoys me for the same reason that Steven Soderbergh’s OCEAN’S ELEVEN did. I can appreciate that they’re good-looking, reasonably well-acted movies, but they’re just so darn smug about it, think they’re far cleverer that they actually are, and for everything they get right they still make very basic filmmaking errors.
Con man extraordinaire Nicky (Will Smith) takes small-time lifter Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing and nurtures her considerable skills to allow her to tackle more lucrative targets. But greater reward also comes far greater risk, and Nicky’s latest score might spell more than just some jail time for himself and his sticky-fingered protégé…
Yes, Smith and Robbie have decent chemistry. No, we did not need the 70s porno music accompaniment to their first sex scene. At least Robbie has enough self-awareness to point out when she’s being mistreated though (“Hi, I’m right here!” When one of Nicky’s crew is talking lecherously about her). Robbie is good in general and Jess gets more far more colour as a character as the balance in her relationship with Nicky shifts. Smith, on the other hand, rarely has to disengage autopilot, and when he does show a flicker of emotion it’s usually misjudged or unconvincing. He’s got to the stage in his career that he can’t just get by on having the incredible luck to be born Will Smith – in this film he even has the gall to utter the line “it’s one of the many wonderful things about being me”. Nicky’s team of dubious associates, including Brennan Brown as a dry-witted fence, are fun. Also fun is BD Wong as a nefarious imp of a high-stakes gambler, and Gerald McRaney outclasses the rest of the cast as an enigmatic enforcer.
Date rape jokes should never be OK, in fact let’s cross rape off the whole comic riff menu. Making a Middle Eastern racial slur (based on documented cases legal or not) doesn’t make it any more justified. To be brutally honest, writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa rarely make a joke in good taste, which wouldn’t be as insulting if they were funnier or wittier, but as they are they just come across as needlessly offensive.
Jess’s character motivation is an easy way out. It’s designed expressly to make stealing OK, and it’s justified as, what else could I do? I’m a dyslexic from a low social class! As aspirations go it’s completely and utterly defeatist, morally it’s overly black-and-white and intellectually it’s patronising. At least have the guts to make your thief steal because she likes it! You might end up with a more memorable and nuanced character then.
The most satisfying scenes are from pretty near the beginning of the film, with Smith and his associates giving Robbie a crash-course in diversionary tactics used by pickpockets, and while they’re not original or particularly creative, they have a nice rhythm and there’s a good crackle between the actors. There’s also a good lead-up to a key moment later on where we see a hit-man taking some amusing health-and-safety precautions for the job ahead.
The worst crime a film claiming to be clever can commit is exhibit extreme stupidity, and one of the key set-pieces in Focus is monumentally stupid. It involves Nicky fixing a bet at a football game in a way that would only work if everyone was in on the fix, and clearly Nicky’s opponent would not play into his hand as he does, even with their near-supernatural explanation for why he does so. It just defies all logic.
Focus isn’t particularly worth your time. Technical competence, the odd amusing diversion and Margot Robbie’s natural movie-star charisma can’t make up for lazy and tasteless writing, a lack of imagination and Will Smith just turning up for the pay cheque. SSP