This subsect of cinema made a big comeback with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 back in 2001, but then maybe petered out with a couple of lacklustre sequels and some other also-rans (Matchstick Men remains underrated, however). This newest of the lot is a very welcome addition; Will Smith plays renowned (but not too-renowned) confidence man Nicky “Mellow” Spurgeon, who one fateful day runs into wannabe-huckster Jess (a well-rounded eventual-femme fatale in the guise of Margot Robbie).
Nicky takes her under his wing (following much pursuance, of course) and soon introduces her to his gang of cohorts as they rip off tourists in New Orleans. Et cetera et cetera, romance blah blah, training montage et cetera, one big heist later and the film abruptly shifts gears – and the less you know, the better.
As blasé as this description of the first act sounds, it’s actually to the viewers’ benefit to know as little as possible going into Focus; we know the basic ingredients of a story like this. We know there’ll be tricks-of-the-trade rapid-fire lingo-wisdom being imparted from the mentor to the mentee; we know we’ll see slick criminals being slick. We know that something big will go down, some game, some con, somewhere.
When we know the ingredients, believe me, the directors know we know. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa give us all the set-up in one big opening act that’s compact but doesn’t feel rushed. Varnished but not vacuous. And once all the pieces are in play, while you have your eye on one thing, bam, there goes the carpet from under you.
Knowing as little as possible, even simple plot details which are seemingly set-up, benefit the viewer as these simple plot details don’t crop up within the film for at least 45 minutes. Knowing where you will be halfway through the film takes the flavour out of that first half; it’ll leave you impatient. Go in blind to the crux of the story and be dazzled by not only the twists and turns of Focus but the luxury of the time it takes to get there. Ficarra and Requa, doubling as screenwriters, clearly feel comfortable in both roles; their dialogue unfolds thoughtfully and with good pace, flattening out scenes like their pens were rolling pins.
As a whole the film feels like a series of vignettes, punctuated by brief monologues which speed things up to make up for the at-times lackadaisical pace. There are definite vibes here that have been felt before, in slower-paced Latin American cinema – anyone who’s seen the outstanding Argentinian film Nine Queens will feel a comforting sense of familiarity here (that is definitely helped by Focus’ detour to Buenos Aires in the latter half of the film).
Will Smith, apparently needlessly atoning for After Earth (which many people simply jumped on the M. Night Hate Wagon for), has chosen a picture for his crucial follow-up outing that is equal parts safe and risky. Safe = Will Smith playing a charming, handsome, confident, smooth talking, larger-than-life character. The only difference between Will Smith and Nicky Spurgeon is that one is a criminal. Risky = a fairly-“arty”-feeling modern crime film from the guys who did Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ultimately it’s clear that the strength of the written word and the now-proven skill of these directors lured Smith in, and whatever else one says about the film he sells his part with gusto (that said, it’s unclear whether anyone’s ever seen Will Smith give less than 110% in a role). Margot Robbie earns her part, most likely having beaten a dozen other young starlets for the role; her youthful naivete and optimism transforms into cynicism, pain and regret by the end.
The script is funny, with great turns from the supporting cast; as ‘ho hum’ as Adrian Martinez’ “funny fat guy” role is, he’s clearly having fun – and that comes across; also, it’s similarly always good to see Brennan Brown (you may remember him as Mr Dresden from the brilliant Orange “Don’t let a mobile phone ruin your movie” ads that used to run before EE and Kevin Bacon took over). Rodrigo Santoro turns up and does what Rodrigo Santoro usually does; namely spout his lines in a velvety Spanish accent and look attractive whilst doing so (where are the challenges Rodrigo? Where’s your next Xerxes?).
The chief concerns of this picture are the twists; as a viewer you’re either there for them or there in spite of them. This film has plenty of ‘em, and not all of them are telegraphed. So, if you’re the kind of viewer who is going to get annoyed by the constant bait-switching and sleight of hand, this is most assuredly the wrong film for you. For everyone else, an entertaining time is guaranteed. The remaining concern is one or two dangling plot threads; but when the story is not chiefly about those left dangling, are we really supposed to care?
Review by Dan Woburn