Focus is more frustrating as it’s not nearly as smart as its filmmakers think as they spend the majority of the time repeatedly trying to dazzle you with the same trick.
Early on, Will Smith’s character, Nicky, advises would be con-artist Jess (Margot Robbie The Wolf of Wall Street (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)) that misdirection is the key. It’s a lesson that could have easily applied to the filmmakers who seek to distract audiences from its predictable plot with stylish imagery and emphasis on its highly attractive cast.
Nicky takes Jess under his wing, but abruptly ends their growing relationship/partnership. Three years later, Nicky finds Jess in a relationship with Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro, 300: Rise of an Empire), who hired him for his own con. As old feelings surface, Nicky struggles to stay on task with the job and remain one step ahead of Garriga’s overprotective bodyguard Owens (Gerald McRaney in a fun supporting role).
Co-directors/co-screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love [Blu-ray]) clearly admire Steven Soderbergh and Focus largely plays like a mash-up of the filmmaker’s biggest hits. Smith and Robbie largely succeed in capturing the steamy chemistry and understated humor of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight [Blu-ray].
The biggest homage though is to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy (Ocean’s Trilogy [Blu-ray]) as Focus is jammed with snappy banter between fun characters, a jazzy soundtrack, some eye catching visuals and various twists.
Soderbergh played each Ocean’s film like a long con constantly portraying Danny, Rusty and company as out-maneuvered until the end sequence when they revealed they were three steps ahead of the opposition all along.
Ficarra and Requa miss that subtle aspect of Soderbergh’s storytelling as they repeatedly try to fool the audience into seemingly expecting the ‘ah, he got us again!’ reaction. Instead, it’s more like watching a magician do minor variations of the same trick.
After awhile you stop trusting or liking any of the characters as you’re just waiting on the twist and Ficarra and Requa don’t have an elaborate payoff for the setup.
Still, there’s enough to enjoy if you are willing to just go along for the ride and simply take everything at face value and not over think it.
Smith and Robbie make for a charming onscreen pairing. While their romance never fully gets developed beyond ‘I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s hook up,’ they are convincing enough to make it believable. Smith’s physique at 47 is better than a lot of guys half his age and he hardly looks a full 22 years older than Robbie. Smith still brings an A-list charisma to his performance even if it’s shades of other characters he’s played previously. Robbie is enchanting and continues to look like Hollywood’s next big starlet.
Were Ficarra and Requa more inclined, the film would have worked better as a straight heist/con comedy as Focus is at its best when Nicky and Jess are on a job instead of the fuzzy romance/heist/action comedy we get instead. It’s breezy and light-hearted, but it could have been so much more with another few tricks up its sleeve.