There’s one moment in Focus when Will Smith registers as himself, and not just as its svelte leading man. Playing con artist Nicky, he pretends to get drunk and cause trouble at a lavish party in Buenos Aires. As he feigns staggering and shouting, he then, in what is surely an improvised beat, yells out “Where are all the black people?!” On the one hand, it’s a nice reminder of Smith’s palatable, cheeky persona, which is etched firmly on the pop cultural landscape of the last two decades. On the other, it sums up the film’s dual drive and weakness: to tap into the naughtiness of its crime-does-pay fantasies, but never dwell on it too long. He at least has the occasional nerve to go against type in his roles (see: Hancock, Winter’s Tale), but here, he’s just the mouthpiece for a studio’s first-quarter financial plan.
He and Margot Robbie, who plays a rookie he takes under his wing, work fine together as teacher and pupil of the thieving arts and then as a romantic couple.1 It’s a shame that Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the film’s co-directors and writers, haven’t given them a satisfying narrative trajectory, or any other point of distinction that the authorship would suggest. More than just awkward dialogue (the least annoying of which is in the trailer – go figure), there’s awkward plotting to deal with when the movie essentially reboots itself after an extended thrill-sequence, where Nicky pits escalating amounts of money in Super Bowl bets against a mincing Asian businessman (B.D. Wong) to the strains of “Sympathy for the Devil”. It ends in a knowingly ludicrous way and finds the film’s best joke within that song, but is practically forgotten when it cuts anticlimactically to a whole new series of events three years later. Jarring as that is, it gives Robbie the chance to change personae and affirm the talent she showed in The Wolf of Wall Street, as she flips from coquettish to callous and back again.
With that shift comes the relocation to Argentina, and Rodrigo Santoro (Redbelt, Che) as a limp racing-magnate villain and Jess’s new lover. While he goes around causing trouble, Gerald McRaney (Tusk from House of Cards) aids him as a harrumphing associate, and he’s having the most fun by a long shot. There’s one scene where he goes barging through Nicky’s loft, and we’re supposed to fear that he’ll catches Jess sneaking around and dob on her to his boss – and credit where it’s due, Ficarra and Requa stage the stealth quite nicely – but instead it’s a comedy starring the world’s most cantankerous granddad, going on a tear about Twitter and technology for absolutely no reason. That comparison only gets funnier as the movie crawls on, where he sells the ongoing suspension of logic like a trooper. Less appealing in the supporting cast are Adrian Martinez and Robert Taylor, who both appear frequently and who have both been saddled with lecherous and annoying characters. At best they serve necessary plot functions, and at worst they enable some gross stabs at humour. Taylor plays an Aussie caricature that inspires a dopey convict dig from Nicky, and Martinez spouts some gross misogyny that Ficarra and Requa have Robbie giggle at in what feels like a weak pre-emptive measure. Once again, it’s a lazy kind of audacity thrown in for lack of better ideas.
At least it looks and sounds nice. Thanks to some old collaborators, Ficarra and Recqua foster a high-flyer lounge feel with as light a touch as the story. I can only imagine the luxury that DOP Xavier Grobet has with getting to shoot the sun-baked locations, and their colour and verve tend to do heavy lifting when the action lulls. Jan Kovac does a fine enough job cutting action together, particularly with the aforementioned sneaking scene and one melancholic sequence of Smith moving through a hotel room in discordant jump cuts. Working with a neat pick of licensed songs, Nick Urata takes a step down from the beguiling, Tati-esque stylings of Paddington to turn in a tinkling, unmemorable score that obliges on every predictable emotion. Ultimately, they have paltry few instances to play; only a strange detour into the life of a goon hired to catch Nicky and a final magic-hour shot make a decent attempt at screwball charm.
It’s hard to summon any enthusiasm for Focus, especially when it feels so much like a career stopover for everyone involved. Ficarra, Requa and Kovac are already filming another joint called Fun House, which has a way more fascinating premise and cast. Robbie is joining them on that, and Smith is joining her later on for a DC Comics tentpole, Suicide Squad. Santoro is playing Jesus in a Ben-Hur remake. Martinez has already dropped in on a Tina Fey film. Even Wong’s reprising a role for Jurassic World. I’d love to say that it’s itself a pick-pocket manoeuvre in itself, distracting you while it fills enough coffers for everyone to do more interesting things, but its attention grabs are too dull to earn that credit.2
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