A film review by Craig J. Koban March 8, 2015


2015, R, 104 mins.


Will Smith as Nicky  /  Margot Robbie as Jess Barrett  /  Rodrigo Santoro as Gárriga  /  Robert Taylor as McEwen  /  Gerald McRaney as Ownes

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

FOCUS is a new conman/caper film that revels in movie star glamour.  The lead actors – Will Smith and Margot Robbie – are endlessly likeable, attractive, and charismatic presences on screen, so part of the pleasure of the film is seeing these gorgeous performers look good, exude movie star glamour, and essentially carry the proceedings.  On these levels, FOCUS is mostly a success as an engaging and fulfilling popcorn film.  

Alas, as a perceptive, cunning, and thrilling caper film, FOCUS feels a bit formless and haphazardly pasted together.  Genre efforts like this get by considerably with their labyrinthine twists and turns in their respective plots, keeping the audience at an arm’s distance and leaving them guessing until the end.  FOCUS gets a bit too bogged down in too much misdirection in its story, which culminates in some late breaking revelations that strain logic to the max and negatively impacted my overall enjoyment of the film.

That’s somewhat disappointing, because Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (they previously collaborated on the wonderful romcom CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE) have crafted a fine looking film that matches the attractiveness of their main stars.  The directing tandem is also on solid ground when it comes to crafting a breezy atmosphere in their films that helps their stories buoyantly stay afloat.  The pair also knows how to use their performance assets well, and Smith and Robbie – despite their two-decade age difference – manage to generate a sort of effortless and unforced chemistry that gives a strong foundation of interest in FOCUS.  Even though Smith is old enough to be Robbie’s father, they do manage to come off as a credible on-screen couple.  That, and Smith – after a series of disastrous, near-career derailing films like AFTER EARTH and WINTER’S TALE – has not had an opportunity to be this affectionately loose, free wheeling, and cocksure in a film in an awfully long time.  



The first 30-40 minutes of FOCUS are exemplarily well oiled and assured.  We are quickly introduced to Nicky (Smith), an master con artist of the highest order that has a whole squadron of loyal workers that conspire with him to steal as much loot as possible from strangers while remaining anonymous…and often in broad daylight.  Unlike other conmen, Nicky isn't a man like Danny Ocean that has his eyes set at the proverbial “big score."  No, Nicky thinks small, but big; he prefers many small robberies that, on a cumulative level, add up to large payoffs.  In his mind, this helps him and his colleagues keep their criminal activities out of the public eye.  Everything is going exceedingly well for Nicky…that is until Jess (Robbie) enters his life. 

Jess is as stunning as a super model, but beneath her porcelain beauty lurks a grifter at heart, which Nicky observes early on.  One of the best scenes in the film is an early one that showcases Nicky flirtatiously showing the more raw and unskilled Jess the art of theft and misdirection; within a few short seconds – and without her knowledge – he lifts her watch, purse, and even manages to put his hand on a part of her anatomy that would usually inspire a woman to slap the culprit.  Yet, Jess is enamored with Nicky’s fluid and stealthy moves, and Nicky sees potential in having Jess on his hustler squad.  Jess also has one ace up her sleeve that most people on Nicky’s team lack: raw sex appeal.  Her beauty can be used for the purposes of quick distraction, which Nicky believes can be cultivated further for the purposes of making more future scores. 

After taking Jess in as his protégé, Nicky decides to take her on some higher profile thefts, one of which leads to the film’s bravura moment at the Super Bowl in New Orleans as the pair try to swindle a drunk high roller in luxury box seats (B.D. Wong) in a series of increasingly risky football wagers.  After that, it becomes clear that Nicky is taking more than a professional interest in Jess, and the feelings seem mutual for her as well.  Unfortunately, Nicky calls off any potential romantic fling with her early on and unceremoniously boots her off his team.  Several years pass apart, but the two unavoidably do cross paths again in South America, during which time Nicky preps a rather large heist against a racecar mogul (Rodrigo Santoro) that appears to be romantically involved with, yes, Jess.  Complications, predictably, ensure for everyone. 

Again, FOCUS is not to be savored for the complexity and intelligence of its caper story elements, but rather for the appeal of its actors.  Smith and Robbie, as mentioned, are ridiculously good looking people.  We are instantly engaged in Nicky and Jess right from the get-go and miraculously find a manner of liking them, despite the fact that they are, when it boils right down to it, duplicitous minded criminals that steal from innocent victims.  Smith can play macho swagger in his sleep and has done so for many years in past roles, but his work in FOCUS just reinforces just how good he is at it.  Robbie, who gave a breakout performance as Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, is a rare kind of double threat actress.  Her innate cover girl beauty somewhat masks the fact that she’s a pretty shrewd and headstrong performer with a knack for segueing between comedy and drama.  Few actresses can dexterously marry sex appeal, tenacity, and vulnerability at once, but Robbie can; she’s FOCUS’ secret weapon. 

Still, for as much performance good will that Smith and Robbie bring to FOCUS, there’s simply no denying that the film overall is rather shapeless and, for that matter, lacking in an overall plot.  The film is dissected into two parts, but beyond that we get very little, if any, development of Nicky and Jess as characters, let alone any embellishment of their respective pasts to make us truly become involved in their plights later.  Even when the film skirts around the notion of “will they or won’t they” get together, it all becomes rather redundant the longer the shapeless story transpires.  The film’s ending is also a real humdinger as it races towards a confrontation involving Nicky, Jess, and that dastardly racecar mogul (a really poorly developed protagonist) that culminates in one party being precisely shot – conveniently missing all vital organs to keep the person alive – and a would-be surprising plot twist that’s more head scratching than shocking when one considers the scenes that preceded the climax.   Caper films, to be sure, often live and breathe on the nature of their unpredictable plot machinations, but FOCUS sort of delivers payoffs at the end that border on laughably nonsensical. 

I struggled with my review of this movie.  My heart wants to recommend FOCUS, but my cold analytical mind can’t bring myself to do so.  Smith is at his delectably arrogant best here and Robbie is a major star in the making that matches wits with her more experienced co-star with relative ease and poise.  Everything else built around these two unendingly winning stars sorts of lays listlessly on the screen.  Watching Smith and Robbie together certainly makes for a delightful experience, but deep down FOCUS is a con film of superficial thrills without a strong dramatic core deep down inside.  I didn’t feel overtly swindled by seeing it, but considering the people in front of and behind the camera, I was not expecting something as relatively disposable as this film. 

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