There is something exhilarating and fun about a Hollywood made con film. They play up the ideals of the life – the beautiful people, the big score and the stunning locations. They all follow the same playbook and they amount to nothing more than comfort food. But, through the predictability and disposability of each film, there shines through the rare example that makes you feel something more than the norm. Focus may lack the smarts to pull off a truly great con on the audience, but what it does lack in intelligence, it makes up for in a number of surprising ways.
The first surprise is the plot structure. Focus is essentially split into two distinct acts, with each act having a start, middle and conclusion. Avoiding spoilers, the first half follows con man Nicky (Will Smith) as he takes under his wing an energetic younger lady named Jess (Margot Robbie). Nicky introduces Jess to his crew and the business-like theft operation that he runs. Along with 30-odd other small-time thieves, they rip off small-goods that can be easily sold and they make a fortune. This is only but a tiny part of the plot.
The plot shifts in Focus are disjointed, but it does help the film avoid the familiar and predictable plot-arches generally associated with con films. For a lot of the early parts it felt like a noir-take on The Gambler, before surprising again and again with a sharp tongue in cheek attitude. The first half is distinctly more fun and a lot of people may get frustrated with the slower second act. It does take a while to get into the swing of the tonal shift, as it time-jumps and puts characters in far different situations than where we left them a mere minute ago.
Smith and Robbie are up to the task though. Smith is older, wiser and has toned down his charisma (not to After Earth levels though!). It allows him to play Nicky like an old soul, struggling in a world that is leaving behind his talents for more modern methods. In Jess he finds a kindred spirit, one who loves the small-time plays, the ones that rely on being personable rather than tech-savvy. If Smith is the head, Robbie is the heart. She bristles with energy, her gorgeous smile and attitude radiating through every scene – you can feel her cast members fall in love with her, just like the audience is.
Perhaps an underrated quality, and one I haven’t seen mentioned much, is the at times stunning, noir-esque cinematography. The way it frames characters as they speak, the titling, the angles, the darker lighting through scenes very heavily influenced by noir – it is a simple thing, one not used that often throughout the film, but it was done with love and skill. It made we pine for more, as the film drifts through a lot of classic noir tropes, the cinematography peaking my interest occasionally with a breath-taking shot. It is a small element of the wider picture, but a stylistic choice that really shone through.
Despite all this praise, Focus isn’t without faults. The aforementioned tonal shifts are jarring; we leave the characters at an incredible high with the following scenes showing character lows. The film also descends into a touch of craziness in the final scenes, lapsing better judgment for twists. The changing of plots suggests a want to be character driven, but it forsakes natural character actions in an effort to pull a fast one on the audience. And the chosen twist? Not all that surprising, in fact it was potentially the least surprising moment of the entire film.
Focus is at its best when it lets the cast roam free, allowing them to be their beautiful, charismatic selves and letting the chemistry between them pop from the screen. The cinematography, the score and song choices, the locations – all add to the stunning con world it has created. It has a few lapses in plot and judgment, but everything else is working towards creating a sexy popcorn film and it delivers that goal in spades. Go in with only the want to have fun and you’ll enjoy yourself.