Remember when Will Smith was box office gold? There was a time, nearly 20 years ago now, when he couldn’t miss. Even if his movie was a dud, it still collected prime dollars. Then Hancock (2008) happened, and he hasn’t done anything decent since. Sadly, given the mediocrity of Focus, you can expect the downward trend to continue.
Sure, Smith brings his trademark charm to con artist Nicky, and the gorgeous Margot Robbie (The Wolf Of Wall Street) brings beauty to Jess, an aspiring grifter whom Nicky takes under his wing. There’s no debating they’re both easy on the eyes. Nicky calls grifting a game of focus — it’s all about getting people’s attention and taking what you want. No doubt this deception is meant to be a metaphor for the film as well, thereby prompting writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to pull the old switcheroo on the audience in the final moments. The problem is the story lacks so much focus leading up to the finale that when the twist comes, we don’t care because we’ve already lost interest.
The flow is disjointed throughout. Nicky and Jess meet in New York, and in the film’s lone compelling sequence, he shows her the tricks of the trade regarding pickpockets and other small time hoodlumisms. They then work together in New Orleans, highlighted by an encounter with a billionaire gambler (BD Wong) at a football game. This sequence runs far too long, but it does hold a great payoff.
Afterward, about an hour into the film, the scene shifts three years ahead to Buenos Aires, where Nicky and Jess encounter new characters and a new set of problems. Now Nicky is working for a racing team owner (Rodrigo Santoro) who’s dating Jess, and the owner’s overprotective bodyguard (Gerald McRaney) is a constant nuisance. With a story this all over the place and lacking continuity, it’s a wonder the script received a green light.
Not helping matters is the fact that Smith and Robbie have the chemistry of oil and water. Considering that this is a movie about con artists, an engaged viewer has to presume at least one of them is playing the other. And the filmmakers go out of their way to make us believe this is the case. But Nicky and Jess never so much as look comfortable together, and their numerous long, tediously written and boring conversations do nothing to make us believe they’re actually kindred spirits. These scenes are flat-out dull and lack intrigue. We don’t feel for a second that they belong together, and because of that the entire finale falls apart.
The main appeal of any con artist story is the guessing game, trying to figure out who’s secretly working with whom before the twistedly twisted ending reveals all. If done right, it all comes together seamlessly, and we never see it coming. Focus, however, is remarkable in that nothing about it is appealing, and the ending feels more forced than clever. Sometimes with a big movie star involved in a clunker you can at least say you understood what drew him/her to the project, but one look at this script and Smith should’ve known better.