"delivers a competent and pleasantly entertaining romp"
It’s easy to make rash assumptions about Focus based on a predictable genre and its trailer, but directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind the darkly amusing Bad Santa) manage to deliver an engaging, thought-provoking con artist movie that doesn’t play out entirely by the numbers.
That said, Focus does come across as somewhat familiar, if not altogether predictable in nature: knowing full well that Will Smith’s Nicky is a seasoned con man gives you a constant feeling of doubt, whereby you question his every word, sincerity and motive; the same can be said about a number of other characters in the mix, including the excellent Margot Robbie.
The central pairing of Nicky (Smith) and Jess (Robbie) are contrasting: the former is a poker-faced legend of his trade, infamous for his cold and calculating schemes as he chips away at defrauding the masses. Jess’ naivety and introduction to the dishonest world of hustling offers a more human touch as well as a better overall performance, but Robbie’s given a meatier role and is far more convincing than her leading man counterpart.
While Smith’s attempt to portray a cool-headed swindler who’s merely out for himself doesn’t stick. The charm is laid on too thickly and fails to do the business as a believable, albeit scripted, character that’s nothing more than Will Smith being Will Smith. We never quite feel inclined to empathise with him, but instead loathe his womanising, deceptive ruthlessness because even away from the life of the adrenaline-fuelled hustle, we’re not given anything we can relate to. Jess, on the other hand, has a much more rounded persona, but even her background and traits give reason for caution.
The plot’s a little vague in terms of where it seems to be heading; surprisingly, it’s not all building towards one career-ending ruse, but instead manages to feel refreshingly small-time rather than anything resembling the extravagance of Ocean’s Eleven. There’s no ‘one final job to end all jobs’ McGuffin to speak of, which allows the story to focus on the romantic element of Nicky and Jess’ relationship.
From the very start it’s easy to sit there questioning every single person’s intention, but it’s also strange (and commendable to Ficarra and Requa) how easy it is to become distracted by Robbie’s blonde bombshell allure and Smith’s laidback, charisma.
Bizarrely, in its early stages particularly, Focus lightly treads a PG-13 equated path of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in terms of the game’s set-up, Robbie’s involvement, and the nature of Smith’s multi-million dollar crooked enterprise. However, such notions quickly fade as it develops a life of its own, especially with a great supporting addition in the shape of Gerald McRaney.
Focus delivers a competent and pleasantly entertaining romp that doesn’t push any boundaries, but certainly manages to distract in order to dupe us into going along with what’s going on in the story. You’re never quite sure when the characters are being genuine and when you, as an audience, are being played, thus keeping your brain sufficiently engaged and your mind ticking over to enjoy the fast pace of it all.