Will Smith comes full circle. He played a conman in his first big screen lead role, Six Degrees of Separation, and now he’s back at it. As the con genre goes, Focus makes a reasonable stab at how it should be done, particularly after the ridiculous and transparently annoying (and mystifyingly successful) fakery of Now You See Me. Yes, if you pick at its seams, they are bound to unravel, and there are barren patches, but Focus carries the satisfying sense of a hustle well done, even if it is unworthy to sit among the ranks of the modern hustlemeister, David Mamet.
Smith is evidently at a stage in his career where priorities have shifted. He can take hiatuses (this is only his second lead role in seven years), indulge in a spot of nepotism (grooming his son for stardom in After Earth, to the indifference of audiences), do favours for friends (a “can’t be bothered” showing as Lucifer in A New York Winter’s Tale), or generally just show he’s a good sport (his cameo in Anchorman 2). Still, whatever would possess him to team up with mediocre Hollywood conscience merchant Ed Zwick is anyone’s guess, but I guess Smith’s becoming soft in his middle age.
He doesn’t need to do Independence Day 2, and he may yet not end up doing Bad Boys 3. If he fails to pursue his serious actor potential (probably best shown in Ali and the first half of I Am Legend), that’s fine; he’s one of the last genuinely charismatic screen stars and it would be a shame if he went all Bruce Willis on us. The strange thing is, Focus has been sold, or rather mis-sold, as a morality tale along the lines of, say, The Grifters (it’s there in the trailer’s car crash introduction to Smith’s character), which may have unnecessarily turned off audiences. Sure, this isn’t Smith in indulgent Seven Pounds mode (thank goodness!), but he gets to flex his chops as the various ruses require him to weave in and out of whatever emotional state his character (Nicky) may or may not be in at the time. He also gets to be very funny sporadically (one always gets the impression he’s ad-libbing like crazy in his movies). This is perfect casting for a natural charisma machine; there’s enough edge to make it seem slightly out of his comfort zone, but any perceived heaviness of subject matter is only really in the heat of the moment.
The con movie is an eternal favourite, as evidenced by the recent American Hustle (how may movies are going to stick “American” in front of their title post-Sniper, under the mistaken assumption it precludes success?) but it needs to justify its smartness, to keep ahead of the viewer. Knowing the tone is as important. Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men ended up over-fussy, while Rian Johnson’s Brothers Bloom was just too damn whimsical. Then there are the smooth and irresistible Ocean’s Eleven movies, where nothing can really go too wrong. The yardstick, however, is David Mamet, master of pulling the rug from under audiences. He hit the jackpot first time out with House of Games (one could easily imagine Focus’ Brennan Brown filling in for Mamet’s then-favourite Joe Mantegna) and since then hasn’t dazzled quite as brightly, but there’s wrong footing aplenty in such later pictures The Spanish Prisoner and Heist (and those are just the ones that wear the con on their sleeves).
Many of the reviews of Focus have suggested it can’t match Mamet, but I think the issue is not the quality of the cons themselves, but rather the joining tissue. Big Willie has chosen to graduate to mentor roles, with this and After Earth, but he also wants to eat his leading man cake. The (inadvertent?) consequence of this is that he is paired with the delectable Margot Robbie (Jess), not far from half his age but serving as his love interest. Smith looks great of course, but this is the kind of vanity indulgence you hoped was consigned to the Hollywood of yesteryear, or at worst the latest Bond movie.
Neither Robbie nor Smith can be faulted, but they don’t sizzle together, not in the way that, say Clooney and Lopez do in Out of Sight (admittedly a high-water mark for crime movie liaisons). That’s maybe a fault on the part of writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; their leads clearly have a rapport, but there aren’t those crucial extra sparks. The result is, the frequent scenes of Nicky and Jess wooing and canoodling are amiable but uncommanding, and serve to break up the tension of the main meat.
The first scene, as Jess attempts to grift Nicky, to the latter’s amusement, sets up what really ought to be a picture in which the novice eventually becomes a master. But that never happens. Robbie’s is a reacting role, and it falls to her protégée to continually be wowed by Smith’s first-class conman. That might be a consequence of the Will Smith package (I don’t know how much this changed between Ryan Gosling being attached and Smith coming on board). As a result, Focus never makes the most of Robbie’s talents, the occasional pickpocketing exercise aside (which itself is all based on her being eye candy). It’s almost as if the only aspect anyone remembered from The Wolf of Wall Street was her all together…
Another problem is the stop-start structure with which Ficarra and Requa have encumbered themselves. To an extent this is justified in keeping Nicky ahead of the game (I should emphasise that, even though I was expecting some twist in most of the sequences, I didn’t spot any of them until they were upon me; the biggest complement I can pay is that during the American Football betting scam, I even thought it was feasible they’d dopey enough to give their lead character a massive gambling problem, so the preceding misdirection worked on me at least). But, when there’s a jump to three years later midway through, it’s a sign that as engineers they haven’t grasped the importance of momentum in this kind of slippery scenario.
The best sequence precedes this, the aforementioned stadium betting. Because we share Jess’ innocence of what is going on, but we suspect something is afoot, numerous possibilities suggest themselves. Is she in on something with super rich gambler Liyuan (B D Wong, superlative, and infectiously energised)? Can Nicky really be this dumb? It isn’t until obligatory tubby sidekick Farhad (Adrian Martinez, foulmouthed and very funny; it’s a certainty that Robbie is genuinely laughing in many of their exchanges) appears in a number 55 team shirt that the grift falls into place.
The big scam, perhaps the one big one from which they can retire that Smith earlier mocks as a myth (although they don’t say as much), is patchy. Centring on Nicky being employed by a motorsport boss (the ever-underwhelming Rodrigo Santoro) to fool a rival team into buying a dodgy component (don’t ask me how this is supposed to work in practice), Ficarra and Requa introduce the inevitable spanner in the works of Jess with inevitable satisfaction. This establishing scene, where she disrupts Nicky’s initial plans, throws our trust in his abilities off kilter. It’s clear enough that he is distracted and jealous, so the whole deal could unravel.
So this works in part, requiring one to add up the bits and pieces as one goes along (the scene where Owens, House of Cards’ Gerald McRaney, is sniffing around Nicky’s apartment only makes sense with hindsight), and there’s a superlative sidepiece out of a Tarantino or Coens movie as a heavy enters a hardware store, ostensibly it seem to buy items for torturing his victims, but is then revealed as merely insulating himself for his assault on Nicky’s car; a human crash test dummy. Later, the yarn spun by the tied-up Nicky is entirely convincing in itself.
Unfortunately, the final developments stretch credulity. Not so much the reveal that Owens is Nicky’s dad Bucky and was in on it all along, but his OTT means of solving matters by shooting Nicky in the chest (has no one ever heard of squibs?) An unconvincing scene in which Bucky takes the loot, remonstrating Nicky for being too soft for the game, follows. Which doesn’t make any sense as we’ve seen how good Nicky is. The point, I guess, is there needs to be some sort of cautionary aspect to it, and Will’s uncomfortable being a con hero who steals and gets away with it, at least without a Robin Hood code. So Nicky has a big heart (and is nearly shot through it to discourage impressionable viewers from following him into the crime game), and leaves the life for love.
This isn’t a show stopping Smith comeback vehicle, but it’s more likeable for that. Even though Focus hasn’t been a hit, it’s modestly budgeted and will probably break even in due course. Nothing he has coming up suggests a movie that will knock it out of the park either critically or commercially (I’m doubtful about the behind camera talent on Suicide Squad, Concussion and The American Can), but at least he seems motivated again. He’ll be pairing with Robbie again on Suicide Squad, and I hope she takes advantage of the post Wall Street offers to take more tangible parts than Jane in Tarzan. Whether her repairing with Ficarra and Requa (in the terribly titled war reportage comedy Fun House) is one of those, or Z for Zachariah is (some positive advance word), remains to be seen.
Ficarra and Requa are supported by favoured composer Nick Urata, and cinematographer Xavier Grobet. Editor Jan Kovac keeps the reveals snappy but just the right side of discernible (they need to be snappy so you don’t dwell on the holes). The New Orleans and Buenos Aires locations are shown off for all they’re worth in what is a highly lustrous affair. They’ve clearly gone for the classy angle, but they needed to smooth over their script with a few more drafts. I’ve liked pretty much everything this duo have been involved in, from Cats & Dogs to Bad Santa and earlier directorial outings I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy Stupid Love. This isn’t up there with either of those latter two, but it’s a respectable addition to the con genre.