‘Focus’ Review: A Romantic Comedy Heist
Focus is a romantic comedy disguised as a heist movie. Sometimes genre-bending pays off, sometimes it doesn’t – this time it most definitely paid off.
Focus is smart, funny and a welcome change to the usually gritty or too-cool-for-the-room films that are released this time of year. Nicky (Will Smith) is a life-long conman, based on “gentleman thief” Apollo Robbins who also served as a consultant on the film. Nicky comes upon Jess (Margot Robbie), herself a fledgling con artist who in general is better at pick-pocketing than she is at larger stakes grifting.
They become involved both in each other’s business and lives, pulling off a series of cons both large and small. Writers/directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra split the script into a series of vignettes that give the film a chance to breathe and tell enclosed stories; only the character elements carry over. While it keeps the plot from getting stale and allows us to see Smith and Robbie work over the course of time and in a variety of circumstances, it also robs us of seeing more of BD Wong‘s Liyuan Tse, who was much more of an engaging enemy than Rodrigo Santoro‘s Garriga. Over the course of his fifteen minutes on screen, Wong managed to steal the show, imbuing Tse with airs of smugness, flamboyance, affability and humor that makes him a tough act to follow, and when compared to Garriga – a bare-bones handsome rich bad guy – it becomes clear that the characters should have switched places in the script. Wong’s performance even overshadows both Smith and Robbie.
Another great performance was by Gerald McRaney. Known for his villainous roles in Deadwood and House of Cards, it seemed McRaney wasn’t too far from his comfort zone at first, playing Garriga’s unpleasant head of security. But McRaney ended up using that glaring viciousness to comic results that were actually funny. Both McRaney and the script turned the expectations back at us and it worked out very well throughout the movie.
Deception is the main theme at play here, to mixed results. Nicky and Jess are suspicious of each other and consistently betray or lie to each other despite whatever feelings they have. It makes us question them constantly and would likely become tedious had it not been for the charm of the script and the chemistry of Smith and Robbie.
Focus owes a great deal of its style to The Sting, and maybe the filmmakers should have watched the classic film another time or two. The Sting certainly had a formula and a few strong twists that were surprising. Focus, on the other hand, overdoses on the twists, most of which we see coming because we’re already suspicious of everyone’s motives. The reliance on twists is to the film’s disadvantage, though the larger ones still manage to land.
Focus has rewatchability on its side thanks to the overindulgent twists. Each twist has at least a little bit of foreshadowing and placing conversations in different context on second review. It’s to Requa and Ficarra’s credit that they can play with dialogue and language that way. We may have seen some of the twists coming but we didn’t catch all the clues.
Where Focus learned from The Sting was its clever explanation and execution of the grifts. The camera moves quickly and coolly matching the equally cool soundtrack, but has no problem steadying on artful shots, underlining the better parts of the script; the cool factor and the interactions between Smith and Robbie. Focus, despite being a rarely seen hybrid of genres, knows exactly what it is and lives by those rules. It’s a fun film that wants to have fun and do some impressive things and have attractive people talk on expensive sets.