In “Focus” Will Smith plays Nicky, a con artist from a long lineage of con artists, who takes under his wing the beautiful and talented pickpocket Jess (Margot Robbie): a great example of the sort of apprentice system that the UK Government is looking to encourage! Margot learns the more advanced tricks of the trade including the importance of distraction (hence the Focus of the title). Nicky and Jess feel an immediate attraction, with Nicky constantly fighting against his feelings to maintain his professional focus. The action moves from New York to more picturesque locations in New Orleans and Buenos Aires, building to the ultimate con in the febrile gasoline-fuelled environment of the Formula 1 circuit.
The key requirements of a first class con/heist movie like “Ocean’s Eleven” or “The Sting” is a charismatic lead, a clever and intriguing story and getting the audience to really care that the characters succeed in their quest against their (typically well deserving) mark. Focus differs in just three respects.
Will Smith has to be one of the more charasmatic stars in the A-list today: on talk shows (like the recent edition of the Graham Norton show) he just shimmers with fun and good humour. Unfortunately in this film, he just seems to leave it all in the dressing room. For 80% of the film he is sullen and dour – – I think he was going for ‘cool and aloof’, but it just comes off as ‘bored’. I’m a fan of Smith, and after “After Earth” he could do with a hit vehicle – unfortunately this is not it.
The surly performance unfortunately destroys any chemistry between his character and Jess, which is a great shame since Margot Robbie is otherwise the best thing in the movie: aside from looking absolutely stunning (both in and out of an F1-babe bikini), she also knows how to act: following on from “The Wolf of Wall Street” she is building a great name for herself.
Elsewhere Adrian Martinez is effective as Nicky’s foul-mouthed side-kick Farhad and for female fans of “Love Actually”, the Brazilian ‘hunk’ Rodrigo Santoro appears as Garriga, the owner of an F1 team (shirt on though this time).
The script aims for “Ocean’s” levels of cleverness, with some good comedy lines, but falls short. The story lurches from the ‘training’ section in New Orleans to the Buenos Aires section (“three years later”) like a needle skipping on an LP (kids, ask your parents about that simile!).
Above all, the film’s lack of moral compass makes you wish that the perpetrators get caught rather than get away with it. There is no evil mobster that they are ripping off: the marks, in the first half of the film at least, are regular wage earners like you and me that abhor theft and card fraud. How then is the audience supposed to warm and get onside with characters that cause personal misery? (“Oh look, she’s stolen his wedding ring – how clever!”). The story builds to an unsatisfactory Hollywood finale, where a cliffhanging “Italian Job” approach might have worked much better.
The film showed in the UK with a ‘15’ certificate for “strong language, violence, sex, sex references”, although it is difficult to see why it really merited this rating, at least from the sex angle – – the scenes between Smith and Robbie are very tame indeed.
Directors – plural, never a good sign – are Glen Ficarra and John Requa (“Bad Santa”, “I Love You Philip Morris”) who also wrote the screenplay. The one flash of brilliance for me was in a long build up sequence as one of Garriga’s henchmen prepares for an act of violence (note: though spoiled by the trailer).
In summary, whilst I’m a fan of the genre, this is one to miss.
Fad Rating: FF.