Scott F. Evans
Focus is a con game film that can’t figure out what it wants to be. The main story is of veteran con-man Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) mentoring rookie con-artist Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). But because this film also wants to be a romantic comedy, they start a complicated love affair. I’m not suggesting that con game films can’t have romantic comedy elements or vice versa, but Focus stumbles because it wants to be cute and breezy. That would also be fine, if Focus was a typical four quadrant PG-13 movie. With an R-rating, one expects a film with a certain amount of adult material. An R-rated film about con-artists increases that expectation exponentially. But Focus plays it safe, riding on Smith’s undiminished charisma and laying bets on audiences falling in love with Robbie as well. They got half of it right.
Smith, unsurprisingly, puts in solid work. He’s a strong actor, and could arguably be one of the best of his generation if he chose edgier, less innocuous material. He underplays here, only occasionally falling back into a couple moments of his typical shtick. Thankfully it’s kept to a bare minimum and doesn’t distract.
Robbie’s the weak link. She’s not bad, but Smith practically buries her every time they’re on screen together. She’s a pleasant, but lightweight performer in a role that needs a more substantial presence. She’s utterly unconvincing as even a fledgling con artist. If Focus was just a lighthearted rom-com, Robbie’s cutesy performance would be perfect. But in this world of thieves and their criminal activity, she feels horribly out of place.
Gerald McRaney and Adrian Martinez round out the supporting cast. Like Robbie, these two feel like they’re in different films. McRaney plays Owens, head of security for a billionaire race car owner. McRaney plays the character just right: gruff, suspicious, and highly competent. It’s the kind of role the actor was born to play. Martinez, for some strange reason, plays a Middle Eastern con artist named Farhad. The character’s obviously supposed to be the film’s comic relief, and Martinez goes all out, playing him in the most disruptively broad fashion possible. Just like Robbie, Martinez’ performance would have worked better in another film.
The writer/director team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are fairly solid visualists. Focus looks great, and even though some of the performances seem out of place… the acting is sound. Ironically, the problem with Focus, is that it lacks focus. The script is schizophrenic, and can’t decide if it wants to be a romantic comedy or a crime drama. There’s some interesting scenes of the con team pulling off their smaller crimes. But the two main bits — the bigger scams — require such massive suspensions of disbelief that the film almost crumbles.
Beyond technical issues and performances, Focus treads dangerously on a social narrative that puts it firmly on the wrong side of history. Because even though Spurgeon and his crew of lowlife con-artists spend much of the time ripping off (mostly) innocent people, the film still wants them to be likeable. That’s especially troubling in this modern era of identity theft, with hackers victimizing working class people every single day.
RATING: Matinee (for Smith fans)