I love a good con movie. From The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven to Catch Me If You Can, the genre is as formulaic as it is entertaining. The secret to its success is a combination of familiar warmth and detached unpredictability: everyone knows the general beats of a con movie pretty much up to the minute, and it is within that space of comfort that the filmmakers get to play with their twists. Con movies work because the audience knows every trick, and yet they still fall for them.
There also hasn’t been a good one in a while. As somebody who hated American Hustle, I’d been feeling the burn waiting for another quality fix of one of my favourite genres since arguably Fast Five, so there was a lot riding on the shoulders of this latest Will Smith vehicle. Luckily, Focus is just good enough to put me back at ease for another year.
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Release Date: February 27, 2015
The movie begins with Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) attempting to pull an amateur con on Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), which he sees through instantly. After the requisite amount of flirting, she moves onto step two of Standard Con Movie Plot #3, begging to be let in on the con Nicky’s running despite her relative inexperience. The film proceeds along all the expected beats, but whilst most films commit to the formula, Focus cares so little about its plot that about twenty minutes into the movie, it almost gives up on having one entirely.
That sounds like a damning criticism, but it’s ultimately wise move, as the movie is far more interested in simply letting characters banter back and forth, allowing the actual con part of the movie to drift into the background. Margot Robbie plays her part with aplomb, subtly mixing the fake naivete of a femme fatal she wants to be with the legitimate naivete of the young woman she is. The movie’s at its best when she shares the screen with Adrian Martinez – the gross but endearing one of Nicky’s crew – in conversations that are frequently laugh out loud hilarious.
Surprisingly, the weak link here is Smith. He’s unusually reserved, playing his usual charm as low as he possibly can, attempting to dig into the conflict at the heart of his character, but sometimes seeming like he’s the only person on set who isn’t having any fun. He isn’t bad by any means, keeping up his side of the bargain as it comes to comedy (at one point he needs to convince a crowd he’s a disgruntled worker, so he punches a guy and yells “I am such a disgruntled worker!”), but otherwise refusing the audience a way in to caring about his character. It doesn’t derail the movie, but you go to Smith because he’s one of a few people who can sell a film on charisma alone, and it’s more than a little surprising that he lets his foot off the gas, in a con movie of all places.
It is that comedic edge that thankfully saves the movie. Smith and Robbie have chemistry, but it’s all but impossible to root for their romance as a tragic tale of liars trapped in love and lovers trapped in lies. What is thoroughly possible to root for, is the possibility of another scene of the two bickering, comparing their pick pocketing technique, or just trying to make each other laugh. Focus is, to me, a testament to the cinematic strength of a good conversation. If the camera is pointed at good actors bouncing off one another, then nothing more is needed to have a good time.
And luckily, despite the near-irrelevant plot, and despite one of Smith’s weaker leading turns, a good time is not hard to be had. Focus is a fun con movie. Nothing less, and nothing more, it is content to be a mid-tier genre movie for adults in a way that is unfortunately going out of style. It’s a movie that’s confident in its restraint, knowing what it does well, and not overstepping its boundaries. It’s never going to set the world on fire and it’s not going to convert newcomers to the genre, but for those of us who have been hurting for a good con flick, Focus is here to brighten the day.