Focus is a movie nearly undone by its own marketing. In trailers for the film — this would otherwise count as a spoiler, but it arrives pre-spoiled — we see stars Margot Robbie and Will Smith tied to chairs and at odds, arguing about who screwed who. Thus, for about 90% of the film, the audience is merely waiting for the two to turn on one another.
The 400-Word-Review: Focus
By Sean Collier
March 2, 2015
You would almost certainly expect that development without the advertising revealing it; this is a heist movie, after all. Jess (Robbie) tries to run a simple scam on Nicky (Smith). He doesn’t take the bait, revealing himself as an international con man at the head of a fly-by-night criminal enterprise. Naturally, Jess tracks him to the site of his next operation (as per tax incentives, in New Orleans), and he takes her under his wing.
So yes — anyone familiar with the genre could guess that someone’s zooming someone. But that certainty, combined with the stupid marketing, makes it absurd that Focus spends over an hour insisting that Nicky and Jess are trusting compatriots. We know what’s coming. Stop fooling around.
Fortunately, Robbie — moreso than superstar Smith — brings a relaxing charisma to the film, keeping the audience invested even as the plot frays in the third act. It’s remarkable that Robbie, barely more than a rookie, can outshine a bonafide icon in Smith and carry a somewhat cumbersome film, but that’s precisely what she does. Smith, for his part, reminds you of his charms without sweating much.
The scenes where the stars discuss and practice grifting techniques are enjoyable, even if the notion of long-con enterprises seems passe. They culminate, however, with a truly thrilling sequence: Nicky plays dumb (and Jess is truly in the dark) while pulling a high-roller (B.D. Wong) into a series of increasingly risky prop bets in a luxury suite at the Super Bowl. Nicky feigns a gambling addiction and risks the payroll of the whole enterprise on a slow-burning con, while the unaware Jess frantically begs him to walk away.
It’s a 20-minute sequence that had me rapt — and then there was an hour of additional movie, with a flash-forward to an auto racing scheme in South America. Focus is not a bad movie, and it’s a star-making turn for Robbie. But if you leave the theater halfway through, you won’t miss much.
My Rating: 6/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark