“Focus” is a surprisingly fun and funny caper flick, more entertaining and compelling than its slick and serious trailers would let on — but not by much.
The con starts early, with the seasoned gentleman thief Nicky (Will Smith) marked at a hotel bar by untested newcomer Jess (Margot Robbie). Nicky willingly falls for her “let’s go upstairs” shtick to see what her end game is, which involves literally getting caught with his pants down as her dim partner barges in on them in a pathetic attempt to extract money.
Soon, Nicky agrees to take Jess on as his apprentice, where she learns his code — never steal from the elderly or crippled — and his trade, just in time to score seven-figures taking advantage of easy marks gathering in New Orleans for a Super Bowl-level event.
Nicky’s enterprise makes Danny Ocean’s crew look like dime-store hoods. From picking pockets to high-stakes identify theft, Nicky operates a lucrative factory that produces grift from the confines of still-under construction office spaces. The thrilling procedural element to his work, and their business, is what sets “Focus” apart from other entries in the genre. This devotion to tradecraft yields the film’s best set piece, where Nicky uses an unsuspecting Jess to help take down a wealthy gambler (a very effective BD Wong).
Soon, Jess finds herself a victim of the very skill set she’s mastered, as Nicky leaves her literally on the side of the road with her share of the loot and a broken heart — and that’s just the first thirty minutes of the film. Then, the weirdly structured script — powered largely by “just go with it” charm — jumps to three years later. Nicky is scamming a rich guy with designs on a piece of tech that could revolutionize car racing. As soon as Nicky begins to tighten the screws, Jess shows up as the rich guy’s arm candy. Nicky wants to rip off the guy and get her back, but his gut tells him he can’t have both — but the fun comes from watching him try as the line between business and personal blurs.
From here, writer-directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa play a “shell game” with audience expectations, subverting them with twists and turns, which is part of the genre’s fun in trying to keep viewers guessing while staying (at least) one step ahead of them. The script succeeds mostly at the former, but falls short with the latter as the film takes on more romantic comedy traits. The caper is front and center, as is the film’s refreshing wit and clever banter. But the movie never really finds a sustainable balance between the two, which results in a middle section full of pretty people talking and expensive scenery that drags.
With Nicky, Smith finds a character easily malleable to his likable movie star charm, but one that also lets the actor showcase a darker edge that the R-rated material needs. The film is all the better for it, with Smith giving his best performance since “Pursuit of Happyness” in 2006.
Robbie exhibits quality spark-age with her co-star, giving each scene the perfect amount of whatever it needs. Often times, Jess is more compelling than her complicated romantic partner; you like her so much, you start thinking of the TV show she could spinoff.
The leads’ chemistry helps sustain the film’s uneven pacing as the climatic con falls into place like safe tumblers, and delivers gripping thrills in the process. But the exposition-heavy sequence runs about ten minutes too long and hinges on a big payoff from an earlier scene that even the novice moviegoer should see coming.
“Focus'” final moments come at the cost of dulling its harsh and cynical edges that the story spent most of its first half earning. If the film were more faithful to its riskier elements in the home stretch, then “Focus” would hit that rare place of being.
A stronger dose of the film’s riskier elements could have pushed “Focus” into “great,” but instead we’ll just have to settle for “mostly good.” But given the rarity of R-rated, adult-driven studio fare not based on “Twilight” fan fiction, it could be much worse.
“Focus” is in theaters now.
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