Overview: A veteran con artist takes a beautiful, sharp thief under his tutelage. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2015; 104 Minutes.
A Borrowed Sentiment: Sometimes, one forgets how easy it can be to critique a film. After watching Focus, the older gentleman peeing at the next urinal over turned to me and said, “That Will Smith is always a hoot, and that girl is a knockout!” And just like that, before I even had a chance to shake the last few drops, the central thesis of my review was written for me. Because really, that’s about all there is to say about this movie.
Can’t Hate the Players: No one can deny that Margot Robbie is a pleasure to look at, and that sort of immediate aesthetic magnetism will always provide her opportunities to capitalize on attention with her talent. Here, she playfully keeps one toe in that limiting standard vixen template and lets the other foot dance just outside. As Jess Barrett, Robbie showcases a mini-spectrum of ability, a veritable macro-résumé: she is comically goofy, witty, vindictive, and emotional.
Forget his recent poor career choices. When he’s at his best, Will Smith is as good at being a movie star as anyone. His turn as Nicky Spurgeon doesn’t quite reach peak form, but comes close enough to remind audiences of his star potential, almost to a heartbreaking degree. I can’t imagine any actor making more of this material. Smith is intense, funny, and measured (which makes it all the more impressive when young Robbie moves with him in stride).
Pretty Meh on the Game, Though: Focus falls a little short because it aims too specifically at its weakest ingredients. The best stretches of this film come from the pursuit of the purest cinematic principles: Robbie and Smith’s banter, the high tension Super Bowl betting sequence, and the adrenaline rush of the frenetic car crash sequence. All of the most entertaining sequences are standard movie moments, expertly arranged. But as a movie about big and little cons, there is an expectation and perhaps a requirement that the film pull its own scams on the viewers. Writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Recqua do with the story what they must: they mislead, they redirect, they provide twists. But because the overall story isn’t nearly as engaging as its characters, actors, and certain isolated sequences, those surprise turns don’t really connect to an effective degree. The surprises are still surprising, but they’re much more “huh” than “wow.”
Overall: The dynamic combination of Will Smith and Margot Robbie proves to be just enough to keep Focus from sinking under the weight of a dull, lackluster storyline.