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Non-Review Review: Focus

Focus is a fun old-fashioned heist movie that suffers from the lack of a central plot.

In some respects, Focus plays as a con itself. While movies about con artists are inevitably built around charismatic rogues and antiheroes, the stories practically structure themselves. Cons are visually interesting and dynamic, they are fun and exciting. Watching characters trying to out-wit one another in rapidly-escalating situations creates instant dramatic tension, and it is easy to see why the genre has remained popular. The beats are familiar – the “big one”, the “revenge con”, the “try to get alive game.”

Off the clock...

Off the clock…

Focus keeps teasing the audience with possible plot hooks that might sustain a two-hour film, diverting the audience’s focus and keeping them off-balance. “So what about the big con?” Margot Robbie’s Jess teases Will Smith’s Nicky. “You mean the one where we all make so much money we all retire?” Nicky teases back, dismissively. What makes Focus so interesting – and what also arguably prevents it from working as well as it might – is that it consciously plays against these recognisable elements. There is no big con, there is no story.

This is the long con that Focus plays – and plays very well. For all that it teases the plot-driven trappings of a caper movie, Focus is a good old-fashioned star-driven drama, a movie built around Will Smith’s movie icon charisma. It is one hell of a gamble, and one that doesn’t play off as well as it might, Focus‘ unwavering commitment provides a charm and energy that carries movie through. Offering advice to Jess, Nicky insists, “You never drop the con. Never break. Die with the lie.” It seems that Focus lives by its own words.

A star vehicle...

A star vehicle…

Indeed, it is easier to sum up Focus in a number of interlocking sequences than it is to offer a coherent plot summary. Focus teases no less than three possible con movie plots, each of which could easily have been expanded out to a longer plot-driven film. Nicky picks Jess up off the street and inducts her into an organised army of con-people. Nicky offers their number at thirty strong, something of a con-artist strike team hitting major events and robbing people blind. However, these are quickly shuffled out out of the film and never appear again.

Then Nicky finds himself locked in heated competition with a compulsive gambler, as Jess watches him struggle with his own addiction. The scales escalate dramatically, with Nicky finding himself increasingly out of his depth playing against an international businessman who carries two million dollars around by chump change. Even at this point in the film, it seems like Focus is lining itself up for the good old “redemption” arc – could Nicky lose everybody’s money and find himself desperately trying to earn it back?

On top of it all...

On top of it all…

Finally, Nicky finds himself working with with a dangerous businessman who has a serious temper and a desire to use Nicky’s very particular talents to vanquish his competitors. Just how much can Nicky trust his business partner? Just how much can his business partner trust Nicky? Emotions inevitably get brought into the equation as Jess finds herself tangled up in a complex web of threats and industrial espionage that could have dire repercussions for everybody involved.

Each of these three set-ups offers a wealth of storytelling potential – any would make a nice plot-driven thriller about trust and loyalty. However, Focus keeps shifting and changing. Every time it looks like the movie has settled into a groove, it subverts expectations by pulling up sticks and moving on. The idea of structuring a con movie as a long con is hardly original, but Focus does a pretty good job. Nicky’s early lecture to Jess about focus serves as an effective statement of purpose for the film: misdirection is the hallmark of a good con.

The mark of a good con...

The mark of a good con…

Ultimately, Focus is much simpler than it claims to be. At its heart, it is a star-vehicle built around Will Smith and Margot Robbie, allowing the two actors to play off one another against a number of familiar con movie back drops. Indeed, the biggest problem with Focus is that the movie’s central trick seems so banal. The reveal that Focus is a character-driven film rather than a plot-driven movie is undercut by the realisation that Nicky’s arc is pretty much the template of the central character arc in every con movie ever – the trickster who wants to be honest.

Focus is decidedly old-fashioned in a number of ways. The most obvious is that Focus is clearly a classically-constructed star vehicle for Will Smith. It is a movie designed to put Will Smith on screen, capitalising on the actor’s charisma. The movie itself plays more like a collection of scenes built around Smith, an excuse for Smith to interact with co-star Margot Robbie and a variety of supporting players. Focus feels like a conscious hark back to more old-fashioned a-list two-hander romantic comedy star vehicles, rather than contemporary high-concept spectacle.

Where there's a Will...

Where there’s a Will…

The script seems to acknowledge as much. Focus feels almost like a relic of the nineties that somebody found lying in a drawer somewhere. The pop culture references are particularly telling. Nicky warns Jess that big weekend inevitably attract sharks and that every card game over the weekend will have “a mechanic who can work a deck as well as Bill Clinton can work a room.” When his bodyguard manhandles Nicky, high-stakes gambler Liyuan explains, “He thinks that he is the Kevin Costner and I am the Whitney Houston.”

There is a charm to all this, a clear sense of nineties nostalgia – harking back to the time when you could reliably build a movie around Will Smith, with little need for anything else. (In contrast, Will Smith and Margot Robbie are teaming up on Suicide Squad, a more contemporary concept-driven big-budget film.) In a way, Focus feels as much a product of nineties nostalgia as thrillers like A Walk Among the Tombstones or The Equaliser. This is a movie that feels somehow unstuck in time.

Just the ticket...

Just the ticket…

It is a credit to Will Smith that it works as well as it does. The actor still oozes charm and charisma. He may have gotten a little older, but he still handles the flippant one-liners and the big emotional beats as well as he ever did. There are worse central concepts to build a movie around that Will Smith’s charisma. Smith might be working through the most familiar of character beats, but he works hard to remind viewers just why he was such an unstoppable force in the mid-nineties.

Smith works very well with Robbie. Robbie has proven herself a performer to watch, and she holds her own in the scenes opposite Smith. There is something playful and cheeky in the way that Smith and Robbie interact, one which helps to counter the somewhat formulaic nature of the central dynamic. Focus is a movie that leans on Will Smith, but really requires both leading performances to help sell it. Focus would not work at all without this strong central chemistry. (Suicide Squad looks to be fun on that basis alone.)

Staying on (gun)point...

Staying on (gun)point…

The script to Focus is perhaps not quite as clever as it thinks that it is. It is playing a very dangerous shell-game with the audience, asking them to essentially “find the plot” under three different pitches. The eventual reveal that this is a very familiar and very basic character story doesn’t quite support all those fun and games. That said, the script is funny and witty enough on a case-by-case basis that it works. Nicky boasts that the trick to sleight of hand is a light touch, and Focus certainly has a light touch.

The direction reflects this. Focus is never really adventurous, favouring nice fluid and dynamic tracking shots of well-executed manoeuvring. The film ups the saturation so as to fill the screen with colour, creating the impression of a world that is not quite real – an effective choice for a movie about con games. Focus moves briskly along, seeming quite sly and self-aware at points. This is not a movie built around verisimilitude or gritty realism; this is a movie which treats the art of the con as the world in which it exists, rather than the story it is telling.

Bar none...

Bar none…

Focus is a fun and diverting little film, even if trying to pull such a fast one risks angering the audience. There is a question whether or not the final reveals are actually worth all the trickery it takes to get there, but Smith and Robbie help sell the long con. Focus is an old-fashioned two-hander with charisma and energy to burn. It might be a bit light on its feet, but one gets the sense that is the point.

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