Movie Review: Focus
By Matthew Huntley
March 4, 2015

Wait - are you Banksy?

Focus is a con artist movie that’s slick and attractive on the outside but ultimately standard in the plot and substance departments. It stars Will Smith as a veteran swindler, who’s been in the confidence game so long that his abilities to lie and steal have practically become an extension of his nature. He tells his new protégé the art of conning boils down to maintaining a deep yet subtle focus on would-be victims and a successful take is all about invoking the right kind of touch. To him, the artist must first observe the vic’s body language, line of sight, etc., and then “touch” them accordingly so they have no chance of realizing they’re missing something, be it a wallet, purse, watch or cell phone.

Smith, as usual, is naturally suave and debonair, and he wears and dresses the part of a seasoned, fashionable con man so easily we immediately accept him in this role. We even envy his character, Nicky, despite his criminality, because he seems to have it all: fancy clothes, expensive cars, and a muted conscience that allows him to obtain such things illegally.

But Nicky has also been cursed with a good heart, which means he’s prone to love, and according to his father, from whom he learned his trade, theirs is the type of business in which “love will get you killed.” Nicky’s love is for his new “intern,” Jess (Margot Robbie), a beautiful, curvaceous blonde who wants into Nicky’s circle after she first tries to con him but realizes she was just an amateur going up against a professional.

Nicky gives Jess a quick, complimentary lesson on how to steal people’s personal possessions, but she considers this small-time, and so she tracks him down in New Orleans (and feels quite proud she did this all by herself), where he and his team are preparing for their next big job. Crowds of people are in town for a major football game at the Super Dome (it’s supposedly the Super Bowl, but the teams playing aren’t based on real-life ones) and it’s the perfect time for Nicky and his crew to score everything from money and credit cards to clothes and jewelry (which they’ll sell on the gray market).

When Jess passes Nicky’s qualification test, and he sees she does indeed have what it takes, he lets her in. At the same time, they become romantically involved and he falls in love with her. But because he knows how dangerous a game this can be, when the job is over, he lets her go without much explanation. Apparently this is what happens when you care about people. It’s also why his father thought of Nicky as soft and gave him the nickname “Mellow,” as in marshmallow.

Three years pass before Nicky heads to Buenos Aires for what he thinks will be his final job by working with a race car tycoon named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), who claims to have engineered a formula that would make his cars unbeatable. Garriga hires Nicky to pose as a crewmember for his rival and sell him a botched version of the formula that would actually slow the cars down. Everything is in place until Jess shows up on the arm of Garriga and suddenly Nicky’s old feelings resurface and he’s once again torn between love and money. He must now decide whether he should proceed with the job or focus on protecting and winning back Jess. Meanwhile, Garriga’s right-hand goon, Owens (Gerald McRaney), suspects something is awry and does what he can to prove Nicky isn’t up to the task.

More of the plot, I will not say, but because we’ve seen so many con artist movies (The Sting, Matchstick Men, American Hustle), and because Focus never really bothers to stray from the norm, we already know the underlying question driving the narrative will be who’s really playing whom? And because the movie adheres to this age-old strategy so loyally, when the time finally comes for the “big wrap-up,” or the inevitable scene when everything gets explained to the audience so that we become privy to how the characters did everything, how they really know and feel about one another, what their back stories and motivations are, etc., the element of surprise is more or less nil, because we knew something like it was already coming. Focus constantly underlines the fact it’s a con artist movie and simply and unambitiously lives up to that label, all in a rather routine manner.

Consider the scene at the football game, right after the New Orleans job, when Nicky makes a series of increasingly high stakes bets with a playful businessman named Liyuan (BD Wong). Because we know Nicky has a gambling problem, the movie tries to steer us into this thinking this will be the beginning of Nicky’s downfall and therefore attempts to generate drama and suspense from it. However, our knowledge of the genre has made us too smart not to realize things are never what they seem in con artist movies. This is how con artist movies operate - characters misdirect each other as the movie tries to misdirect the audience. And because we know this, the twist that ensues doesn’t really shock or surprise us.

The way Focus might have redeemed its hackneyed qualities was by developing the characters beyond their roles in the plot, but the screenplay by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also share directing credits, doesn’t allow enough time for this. It’s too eager to wrap up the plot, get to the end and explain what it did. Ficarra and Requa seem to think this is what viewers mostly want to see because it’s what we’re used to, but hopefully with their next collaboration, they’ll realize audiences actually like films that are more different and daring and that it pays to defy our expectations.

Focus is what you might call an “easy watch,” or a standard example of its type that’s more entertaining than dull, but it’s not exactly fulfilling. Sure, we enjoy the company and interaction of the characters, and we can appreciate the slick editing, glossy production values and pretty locations, but because it’s so obvious what the movie is going to do, that when it actually does it, its overall impact gets diluted.