Focus Plays it Safe to Deliver an Average Genre Mashup
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Written by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie
Running time: 104 minutes
Rated R for for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Focus is an incredibly average crime/comedy in the vein of Oceans 11, without the charismatic ensemble cast to carry the comedy through the film. The film itself rests on the charisma of Will Smith, and the charm of Margot Robbie. While they prove charismatic and charming enough to carry the film, on their own, they cannot carry it very far. Smith and Robbie have good on-screen chemistry, and work well together, but the dynamic is fairly shallow. What is missing is the dynamic of a long-term relationship between characters of equal standing. This absence noticeably hurt the film due to the way the story was constructed. I believe they tried to do too much with too little; the result is a film that is unsure of its own identity. Is it a tense heist film, a romance between two damaged criminals, a dark comedy around a high steaks con? Yes, a film can be all of those things, but it takes a team to pull it off, it is not a one-man job.
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a life-long con man, one of the best, and Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) is a rookie that caught Nicky’s eye. As the film begins, Nicky takes Jess under his wing, teaching her everything he knows, as they fall for each other. In New Orleans for the Super Bowl, they run a series of small cons with a large team of seasoned professional thieves, earning millions of dollars. That is where Nicky leaves Jess abruptly, with a cold farewell, and a cut of the profits. Three years later their paths cross again, as Nicky, now flying solo, is working a long con for a billionaire racecar owner, but Jess’ sudden appearance threatens to spoil all of Nicky’s plans.
The film was split in half; the first half is a big organized caper involving dozens of people. The second half revolves around two or three people. This stunted the pacing of the film, and the development of the characters. There is a three-year gap in the story, and we learn next to nothing about what happened to Jess or Nicky in those three years. This is a huge lapse in character development that is never satisfactorily filled. We know they are different, but we don’t know how. This takes us back to this film having a bit of a genera identity crisis, and writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa not fully committing to any one genus. I say that as if it is only possible for a film to be one thing. Most films are a blend of more than one genus, and it rarely becomes an issue. It can cause confusion for the audience if any of the mixed genres are generally in opposition to each other. For example, Romance often couples with Comedy, but rarely with Crime or Thrillers. With Focus, Ficarra and Requa struggled to keep the tone of the film consistent. It was very tense at times, fantastically tense during the Super Bowl gambling scene, but dropped that tone and didn’t pick it up again until the last 15 minutes of the film. It was funny at moments, but mostly in one-liners that that did not serve to lighten the overall tone to that of a comedy, or even a dark comedy, and the romance was undersold, and reduce to a plot device. It was pointed out to me, as I brought these points up with a colleague, that I was being a little rough on this film. I agree I am being rough on a film that has all the markers of being a very good film, but is instead an average and mostly forgettable film. I don’t think this is the revival of Will Smith’s career he was hoping for, but it will serve to remind audiences that he is capable of being entertaining, and that might be enough.
Overall, Focus is a decent film, the previously mentioned gambling scene is fantastic, and represents what this movie could have been. Rather that lives up to this potential it cashed in and coasted to a less than fully satisfactory ending.