Back in 2009, dynamic filmmaking duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa made their directorial debut with I Love You Phillip Morris, a romantic comedy based on the “true” story of veteran swindler Steven Jay Russell. They followed that effort two years later with Crazy, Stupid, Love, which traded heist antics for the bland conventionality of suburban upper middle class ennui. In the intervening four years, Ficarra and Requa appear to have thought long and hard about the sorts of movies they’re interested in shooting…settling on a Will Smith vehicle. So was born Focus, a film that blends sleight of hand with dime novel flirtations, suffusing both angles with slick stylishness.
If a dedicated con artist caper in the vein of Michael Mann sounds like a stretch for Ficarra and Requa, rest assured that Focus is a surprisingly natural progression of their work together. Like I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy, Stupid, Love, Focus depends on economical character relationships and spares no expense in architecting punchlines; the film uses these elements as its building blocks, as comforting details in a genre that Ficarra and Requa are less acquainted with. Focus invests heavily in the world of sharpies and mountebanks, where there’s danger in every job and human attachments can get a person killed.
So says Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), who—we learn very early in Focus’s running time—happens to be con artist royalty of sorts, son to legends of the game. Ficarra and Requa make their point well enough: Nicky has smooth hands and can spot an incoming con a mile off, and it’s through the latter talent that he comes to meet Jess (Margot Robbie), a wannabe grifter who figures out Nicky’s identity and pleads for his tutelage. After their paths collide, Focus becomes a two-part movie. In the first, Nicky takes Jess under his wing, introduces her to the other members of his operation and robs a bunch of people blind in New Orleans before unceremoniously kicking his mentee to the curb. In the second, he runs into her three years hence while doing some dirty work for a billionaire race car enthusiast, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), and her re-emergence in his life throws Nicky into something of a spiral—a love spiral!
Focus is about the sexiness of indulgence culture, the thrill of swiping watches and jewelry from their owners without them noticing, and the kinky appeal of a life of crime. The problem, or one of the problems, is that it isn’t about much else—or, perhaps, it fails to be about anything else in any meaningful way. That’s actually okay, though, at least for the film’s first chapter; Ficarra and Requa make Focus into a delirious entertainment that skirts around real greatness for about 50 minutes before seguing into its climactic half, where everything lags and becomes mired in over-articulated sentiment. If Focus deserves shaming for any reason, it’s that it black flags itself at the last lap by refusing to go anywhere new or even interesting. Frankly, you’re better off walking out after the film departs the Big Easy. At least then you won’t be crushed by the incomparable weight of disappointment.
It’s not all bad, of course. Ficarra and Requa shoot the hell out of everything that wanders into frame, making their lavish backdrops and finery appear they’re worth several million dollars more than their actual price tags. By the time it’s over, you may be convinced that you’ve moved into a higher tax bracket. Focus looks rich, and even as the story wanders aimlessly past the point of cohesion, you’re likely to be taken in by its aesthetics. Maybe that’s part of the filmmakers’ con, distracting your gaze so that you don’t notice that they’re trying to get away with telling the exact same narrative twice in a row. The real kicker is that judicious late-stage edits to the script might have rescued Focus’s climax from its own banality. Peer review springs to mind.
Through it all shines Smith and Robbie, the cream of the crop that is Focus’s ensemble (which includes a cameo by the wonderful BD Wong and a rare, outstanding performance from Gerald McRaney in full “get off my lawn” mode). No, neither of them have the power to fix the film’s missteps, and even they can’t successfully act through the contrivances on which Ficarra and Requa rely. But when they’re together and they’re not being hemmed in by unassured writing, they give the picture a reason for existing. They’re bubbly, they’re engaging, they’re seductive: theirs is a master class in smoldering sensuality any time they share the screen together. Even as Focus loses it, they’re never boring, and by extension the movie never is, either. Yet, that the film remains aesthetically dazzling throughout almost doesn’t matter: it fails to follow through on its basic initial promise, and so ends up like a gambit with no payoff, a combination of the directors’ two past focii that doesn’t quite add up.
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, BD Wong, Adrian Martinez, Robert Taylor, Brennan Brown
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.