Focus lacks almost entirely in its namesake, flopping from one light-fingered narrative point to another, despondently coasting off the star power of its two sugary leads until its thinly veiled, ill-constructed story finally peters to an unsatisfying halt. As a discernible comeback vehicle for Will Smith‘s equally stalled career, Warner Bro’s one hundred million dollar gamble is just that; a hundred million dollar gamble. The blue chips come piled high on Smith’s stock but all the flash and pizzaz in the world can’t distract us from the real pressing questions at hand: where did all that money go?
A motif of Focus is to keep your eyes on the prize but the sheer impenetrable nature of Hollywood budgets is more than sufficient to keep us from ever being able to answer that posed question with any degree of clarity. As Focus attempts to pull off a magic trick on screen, the only slight of hand I see is transforming a hundred million dollars into this utterly disposable lark. Though undeniably stylish and as easily digestible as baby food, Focus ultimately lets down the intoxicating and downright sexy promise of Will Smith and Margot Robbie with blasé character arcs and vapid twists that come nowhere close to conjuring the imaginative, cunning power they ought.
As with any film predicated on gambits, a ruse can only be as astonishing as it is purchasable. The prestige only works if we sign off on the pledge. You can’t properly make the turn when the road is this straight and narrow. Focus gambles on its intelligence, assuming it’s slick enough and smart enough to shake off our suspicions. But upon entering, we taste the rank stench of bankrupt storytelling on our tongues the air is so thick with it. For all ye who enter, surprised ye shall not be.
Trying to pull the wool over our eyes is Smith’s tactfully reckless Nicky Spurgeon. Operating solely on a vast ocean of charisma, Nicky is a notoriously cold-blooded machine running on pilfered Rolexes and swiped wallets. Maintaining a mild empire of looters and cheats, Nicky’s illegal enterprise runs as smoothly as a Mercedes-Benz assembly line, flipping nabbed billfolds and eBaying stolen iPads to the syncopated beat of a factory whistle. The arrival of amateur con-artist Jess (Robbie) threatens to overturn Nicky’s emotionless ways as he takes her under his wing to teach her the tricks of the trade and ends up with more than he bargained for.
The official synopsis of Focus describes Nicky’s latest scheme interrupted by a femme fatale from his past. What it fails to mention is that the history between Nicky and Jess is established in the first 60 minutes of the film and the whole “latest scheme” thing is a rushed hustle that gets less than half of the film’s run time. Thusly, the meat of the picture is contained in Focus‘ final 44-minute helping, a frustratingly humdrum afterthought of a narrative appendage that is tasked with the impossible function of making up the second and third act. By the time the laughably lengthy introduction flips its “Three Years Later” card, it feels like the movie has already ended. And our patience is more than well worn.
Tit for tat, Focus isn’t all bad though. For every misstep writer/director team John Requa and Glenn Ficarra take, Smith and Robbie amp up their alluring sorcery to compensate, selling their product as a genuine Fudgsicle when we can tell it’s really a dressed-up poopsicle. Smith’s cocky charm is a suit that fits him nicely and it’s nothing short of a relief to see him back on the big screen trying it on again while Margot Robbie continues to shape herself into a coveted Hollywood figurine. Powered by so much more than just her angelic looks, she oozes chemistry like a broken DIY science kit.
With enough charm in the tanks to partially power a date night, Focus intermittently manages to overcome a narrative buckling under its lack of realism and forethought but only in periodic fits and starts. Will it be enough to jump start Smith’s downward-trending career? Probably not. Though he hardly comes out of the wholly lackluster picture blemished.