From the famous writer/director duo of “Bad Santa”, “I Love You Phillip Morris” and “Crazy, Stupid Love”, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa make a somewhat disappointing caper feature that follows just about every typical con-artist outline. Nicky (Will Smith) is a suave con-man, channeling a classic Cary Grant, as he works with a team of quick pick-pocketers to amass a fortune in slow increments. He makes note to say that he’s not in the business of high-stake heists where winner takes all and retires on the Cayman Islands. These men and women are in it for fun, keeping it clean with low-stakes operations. That is until Nicky meets the gorgeous Jess (Margot Robbie, “Wolf of Wall Street”) who wants in on his lucrative profession.
These two lead an interesting hour-long setup about a con man who trains his beautiful protégé, only to start falling for her as they build a palpable chemistry. But falling in love and lust is easy when cinematographer Xavier Grobet and costume designer Dayna Pink make everything and everyone look like they’re in a feature-length commercial for high living. This drama is dripping with luxurious hotels, expensive cars and beautiful clothes, but this fantasy portrait of a work-hard/play-hard criminal makes Smith seem older and less spirited than his typical charming and machismo self. He seems trapped in a brooding, eloquent and romantic role that would have been better suited for someone like Tom Cruise or George Clooney. If you’re looking for the charismatic and rich, yet flawed guy in Hitch, or the struggling and endearing father of The Pursuit of Happyness, you’ll be disappointed that those big ears and ripped physique only make him a box office hit in dramedies and action thrillers alike.
It’s also unfortunate that due to Nicky and Jess’ profession, their range of salient character traits are insincerity, opaqueness and dishonesty — which makes it nearly impossible to invest much interest in them or their romantic pursuit. Even though Focus, like Phillip Morris was full of plot drivers plus the unfolding of lengthy setups and reveals, the difference between the two is how the relationship between Nicky and Jess changes drastically after each plot point. This is typical of a twisty thriller flick that eventually lands the characters in unforeseen territory, but instead of feeling like all the confusion was justified, it felt jumpy. This was definitely a case of plot versus subplot.
This film looks sleek, but feels like a major miss from the iconic writing/directing pair. The con man movie is not a genre that has an overabundance of entries for comparison, but their focus on sexy danger and drama gave no weight to the real message that a profession of lying and cheating doesn’t bode well for love. And yet, that message only works if the characters are capable of fooling us along with their victims. Sadly, their grating insincerity with gloomy overtones dries up any fun. The main problem with Focus is that it shockingly never does — however if the perfect con is to divert the audience’s attention to detail with A-list billing for box office numbers, then we’ll see if it pays off.