You have to feel for Will Smith. Once upon a time, the man could do no wrong. Forget Tom Cruise, Smith was once (and could arguably still be) the biggest movie star in the world. You could guarantee that his next movie would open to success-guaranteed opening weekend figures. But after a certain After Earth, everyone’s opinion of Big Will seems to be turning sour, through a combination of nepotism and egotism hitting intolerable levels. With Smith taking on a role with none of his family members tagging along seems like a welcome prospect, but sadly, Focus simply adds to the string of bad decisions Smith has made lately. There’s a reason it’s out in February.
Nicky (Smith) is an expert con artist capable of stealing numerous items of great value, as well as having a habit of gambling it away for a bigger prize. When he meets the young, talented wannabe con-artist, Jess (Margot Robbie), he takes her under her wing, showing her the ropes as well as becoming romantically involved with her. Yet, after a big score, he leaves her behind with no closure, seemingly demonstrating he felt nothing for her. However, three years later, Nicky and Jess’ paths cross once again as Nicky is embarking upon a new con. Seeing this as a moment to redeem himself, Nicky goes about trying to convince Jess that he is a changed man. Can Jess really trust this expert con-man?
Focus comes courtesy of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the director/writer duo behind Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Philip Morris. Two very talented writers in regards to comedy and character, does not necessarily mean that they can work that talent in to a con-movie. Con movies are hard, when they’re good, they’re really good (Ocean’s 11). When they’re bad, they’re really bad (Ocean’s 12). Often, when they’re bad, it is because they exude an air of superiority, often assuming that they are supremely clever in its twists and turns, when in fact it turns out to be smug and stupid. This is very much the case with Focus, a film which starts out breezily enough, but quickly falls into the trappings of the con-movie.
The chemistry between Smith and Robbie helps buoy the film in the moments in which the stupidity of the plot starts to over-power the positives, but there are points in which the pair seem to find it hard themselves to believe in the film they are being asked to carry. They’re certainly perfectly pretty to look at, but both have done much better work and should move on from this one as fast as they can.
Much of the earlier sequences revel in showing the tricks of the trade and inspire a strong sense of fun. Showing how Nicky works, and seeing how Jess takes to the world that she is being shown is displayed slickly enough, and it is when the film’s confidence feels most justified. But from this point, the film becomes more ridiculous amounting in a number of twists which quickly begin to make no sense and leave you laughing in disbelief.
This would be more bearable if the film itself was harmless, but some of the characterisation and motivations comes close to being very uncomfortable, with the odd dash of casual racism and strange ideas towards how women are motivated coming across as unacceptable for a mainstream movie in 2015.
Once we cross the finish line, it is hard to care about the proceedings, as well as the characters. Con-artists are hard people to sympathise with, for the simple matter they steal off people for their own monetary gain. Trying to add some depth and soul to these types of people is difficult, and it is something which Focus very much fails at. There is very little for the audience to be invested in, which, y’know, is quite an issue when one is watching a film that they’re expected to care about. A stylish, yet empty, shell of a movie which marks a low-point for two talented stars, as well as the usually engaging pairing of Ficarra and Requa.