When a movie like Focus comes along, you know you’re going to be in for a lot of plot twists. That’s to be expected. The feeling the movie wants to give you is a thrill that it was able to pull one over on you — that its misdirection made you miss key points of information — so that you immediately want to re-watch it in order to check for clues to the ultimate reveal. So frequently is this not accomplished, and it’s not with Focus, either, whose final twist is one you’ll figure out about five minutes before it happens.
But let’s back up. This is a film with a 30-minute prologue which follows a con-man named Nicky (Will Smith) as he recruits a rookie, Jess (Margot Robbie), to help his team pull off over a million dollars’ worth of heists in a Superbowl-esque football tournament before ditching her with her share of the pot, not to be seen for three more years. Then the real plot kicks in, which is unfortunately for us significantly less interesting than the flashy and slick action that took place in the prologue. We get suckered in.
The rest of the movie, set three years later, follows Nicky as he’s hired to pull off a con for a racecar driver (Rodrigo Santoro). Things get more complicated when we find out that the driver is currently dating Jess, with whom Nicky’s had no contact since ditching her. What does this ultimately mean? Lots of “romance” scenes in which he tries to make amends for before, absolutely no drama or tension when it comes to the actual con, and then a couple of late-game plot twists that don’t mean a whole lot to us or the characters, the biggest of which you’ll guess as soon as the scene starts thanks to some earlier foreshadowing that’s just a touch too obvious.
It’s all empty, shallow, and doesn’t amount to anything close to what it hopes to. When all’s said and done, you look back and find that the big picture wasn’t all that complicated, and that the film wasn’t particularly successful at anything it attempted. The romance falls flat — Smith and Margot have little chemistry — the main con is boring, and the twists are perfunctory.
In the moment, though? It kind of works. It doesn’t run for the often seemingly obligatory two hours, which means that there isn’t too much filler. You hope that it’s going to amount to something, so you watch intently — almost too intently — just to make sure that it doesn’t pull a fast one on you. It’s got a relatively strong sense of humor, meaning you’ll laugh a decent amount, and individually Smith and Robbie are just fine. It’s only afterward that you learn you’ve been swindled, and not in a good way.
Will Smith is the lead, in what feels like his first leading role in forever. He’s fine as Nicky, and is especially good in the scenes in which he has to act like a know-it-all con-man. He can’t do romance here, either because he and Margot Robbie have no chemistry, or simply because writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa can’t direct him to. Given that they made the romance-free rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love, that wouldn’t surprise me.
Margot Robbie, meanwhile, is captivating whenever she’s on-screen. She stole the light away from Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and here does the same thing to Will Smith. No, she can’t do the romance parts, either, but she’s got this enchanting smile that makes it hard to hate her for that. She seems to be having a genuine amount of fun for most of the film, which is something that the rest of the movie was kind of missing. Sure, she’s mostly here to be eye-candy, but she makes the most of what she’s given and reminds us she’s a star in the making.
Focus is the type of movie that makes you feel like it robbed you, but not in the thrilling “How did you do that?” kind of way. Instead, you just feel a little disappointed that its 30-minute prologue was so much fun that it got you excited for the rest of the movie. You hope its big picture is more than it winds up being, and it is eventually too simplistic a story that adds up to too little to be worth the investment.