Con artists are not lacking for terrific movies about them. Audiences were treated to a slew of them in the early 70s, starting with Joseph Mankiewicz’s masterful Sleuth, followed the next year by the Best Picture winning The Sting, which had Paul Newman and Robert Redford tag-teaming and two-three and even four-timing with aplomb. Even Orson Welles’ came out of quasi-self-imposed cinema exile to offer his still unparalleled film essay F for Fake in 1975, which continues to challenge audiences and critics alike with its ambiguous depictions of fraud and fakery. After the unmitigated failure of The Sting II, however, the genre quieted, with only a few treats in the 80s and 90s like John Cleese and Charles Chrichton’s caper A Fish Called Wanda and Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. The genre arguably reached its heyday at the turn of the century, with Ocean’s Eleven providing a luxurious remake of a rather lackaidasical caper from the 60s, trading in that film’s notable Rat Pack for a slew of Hollywood elite, before Spielberg and Scott got into the game the following years with fine efforts like Catch Me If You Can and Matchstick Men, respectively. The makers of Focus seem at least partially aware of this rich history, indeed one of the film’s production companies is even called Ratpac-Dune (one named after the men, the other the former Las Vegas casino?), but rather than doing anything to enliven the genre, they struggle to offer anything remotely enjoyable.
Will Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a veteran con man who decides to teach a few moves on the streets and between the bed sheets to Margot Robbie’s ingenue, Jess Barrett. After a week of conning every character in their immediate vicinity, Nicky breaks off the relationship and disappears. Three years later, while pulling another con in Beunos Aires, whom should he run into but– look, I’m sure you get where this is going, and the film doesn’t offer much innovation beyond this routine.
The plot isn’t so much the problem however, despite how derivative it all seems. The real problem with this movie is that the character development is so laughable. Will Smith is a skilled con artist with a troubled past you see. I know this because he tells this to Margot Robbie’s character after knowing her for less than a few hours. Luckily for their unbelievably fast relationship, Robbie is an orphan with dyslexia who longs to be a master con artist herself. I also know this because this is her response, topping what would otherwise be a strangely personal disclosure from Smith. Despite each knowing the other to be a con artist, neither seems particularly troubled about offering these potentially ruinous details about their past, nor does the film feel particularly worried about how sloppy the exposition seems. It’s also particularly strange that for a movie in which both characters lie constantly to everyone, including one another, this awkward reveal should be so honest. I guess the filmmakers weren’t worried that it’s implausible, because everything in this movie straddles that strange line between unbelievable and completely far-fetched. Or maybe this scene exists since without this dialogue you’d learn next to nothing else about these two by watching them interact for another two hours. The whole effort feels like a con job, as if the directors were curious to see how much concern you could lose before you stopped anteing up.
Divided into two distinct halves which each focus on one of the two main characters (see what the filmmakers did there?), both sections suffer from frustratingly dull leads who have almost no chemistry. So little is their chemistry that the entire film seems like a perpetual screen test for relative new-comer Margot Robbie, who tries her best to impress Smith with her precocious sensibility. The tactic doesn’t work even when that’s what the script demands, and it works even less when it asks for anything else. Robbie is undeniably beautiful, but she lacks the charisma necessary to carry this movie, not to mention her voice seems incapable of expressing any convincing emotion. This wouldn’t be so problematic if Smith didn’t seem so bored for most of the movie. He’s not quite as dull as he was in After Earth, but this damns him with the faintest of praise. So instead of anything passing for a rapport, Robbie spends most of the movie smiling at everything for no reason while Smith does exactly the opposite. Neither balances out the other, nor are they particularly enjoyable to watch for any of it.
The leaden performances aren’t helped much by the film’s forgettable style, which shows flair but never much promise. The cinematographer has some fun pulling focus in a few scenes (again, see what the filmmakers did there?), but Focus never achieves anything more than a glib rendition of a weak script trying too hard to keep the audience and the characters hoodwinked. This keeps everyone at an unbridgeable distance, and this becomes all the more problematic when the film expects the audience to care about the success of these characters. Ocean’s Eleven was smug, sure, but Danny Ocean’s love for his ex-wife never seemed anything less than genuine, and anchored an otherwise mad-cap game of trickery and deceit. In Focus, however, we’re never quite sure if it’s all just another con, and even if it isn’t, the couple don’t seem to have much real affection for each other anyway.
I was also unsure as to how or why we are expected to thrill to the efforts of smarmy con artists hustling ostensibly innocent Americans for so much of the movie. In other con movies, especially the Ocean trilogy and The Sting, the deceit was enjoyable precisely because the men being conned were so deserving of it, here it just seems in poor taste–especially given that the bulk of the action happens in New Orleans of all places, in the all-too-recent wake of both an economic and literal disaster. That the film seems to want us to root for these people rather than be mildly unnerved by their actions is at the least mildly perturbing.
By the time the film seems to be approaching some conclusion–which feels like a hasty studio rewrite than a satisfying payoff–I was simply grateful for it to end, if only so that I didn’t have to watch these static characters continue their boring, leaden existence. But as if in keeping with the spirit of the characters, the film proceeded to rob from me of even this small satisfaction by forcing in yet another monologue that is ludicrous in length, placement and level of exposition. That this moment also serves as the only real development for yet another character seems downright lazy rather than a pleasant surprise. Though none of this is quite so atrocious as Now You See Me, an unendingly ludicrous and asinine magic-caper flick that somehow managed to eek out a forthcoming sequel, this movie isn’t much better.
That Warner Brothers dumped this movie at the tail end of February with little fanfare ought to give pause to anyone considering seeing it. Innocuous, derivative and immediately forgettable, Focus may demand just that with its very tagline, but the film never provides a good reason for you to give it any.
Focus opens this Friday.