On the Silver Screen – Focus
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus casts Will Smith as a con man named Nicky who takes a young woman named Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing and teaches her the tricks that he’s perfected.
If you watch the trailer then that’s the film that it would have you believe but the end result is quite different. Nicky training Jess actually makes up for less than half of the film with the rest taking on another form entirely. It’s a fairly jarring transition that makes the two parts of the film feel a little divorced from one another in a lot of ways.
I would say that seeing Jess in training was the strongest part of the film despite the fact that it ran through the standard tropes for these sorts of things. Nicky’s advice is always spot on even if it defies everything we know about how people work. In some cases the con relies on people sticking really strictly to a routine down to the second but since it’s coming out of Will Smith’s mouth and he has the charisma to pull it off then it’s easy to buy it. The film becomes far less interesting once this section of the narrative is over and all sense of pacing pretty much disappears.
The plot is pretty messy and it actively encourgages constant second guessing of what’s going on. Nicky is duplicitious one too many times to seem sincere when the film wants you to believe that he is. Basically I assumed that everything he said to anyone else was a lie and I was right most of the time. It’s definitely a film that went for style over substance and in fairness it does have plenty of style. So many of the scenes are shot in a way that makes everything look cool and glamourous which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s pretty much in Will Smith’s contract to make him come across as cool at all times I imagine.
Will Smith is basically playing the same character he played in Hitch but instead of using his innate understanding of what makes people tick to be a love doctor he uses that knowledge to manipulate them as a con man would. It’s a fairly effortless performance for Will Smith who seems to have perfected 3 distinct character types for most of his films. There’s the Will Smith in this film who is suave, sophisticated and relentlessly charming to the point of being able to use it against others, there’s the Will Smith that appears in films like The Pursuit of Happiness that gets noted for strong dramatic performances and then there’s the action hero seen in things like Men in Black and Independence Day. We’ll ignore After Earth for the purposes of this but in general with Will Smith that’s what you get. He’s great at all 3 of these even if the films he appears in aren’t the best but it feels like a completely effortless performance as he just runs through what he’s good at and takes no real risks. There’s nothing wrong with that and many other actors do it but it basically means you can predict what his character is going to do next and where he’ll be by the end most of the time. This film is a classic example of that with most of the surprises being easy to guess. If it weren’t for Will Smith’s performance making everything slightly more believable the film would have fallen apart fairly easily. If you give it any thought after viewing then everything starts to unravel.
Margot Robbie does a good job here but she’s not given much to work with most of the time. This film is definitely a Will Smith vehicle and everyone else takes second place. Again, from the trailer it looked like the film would be her story with Will Smith appearing as a mentor figure but this isn’t the case for most of it. I liked the idea of her having potential and then honing her skills but the film seems to skip most of her training and go from unskilled to expert in the space of a couple of scenes.
Her character feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways because she has no real agency of her own within the story. Most of her scenes involve her following Will Smith around or being double crossed by him while following the generic love interest template. Any time she seems to have the upper hand in the constant cat and mouse game of manipulation it’s quickly turned around and she becomes the manipulated. It also doesn’t help that most of her skills are founded on the fact that she’s incredibly attractive. It’s such a shallow way to portray a woman in any film but particularly one where she is supposed to con people. I feel like there was a cleverer way to make her manipulative than putting her in a low cut dress. I was also hoping that she would go through some kind of character arc but as I said above this film is more about style.
One saving grace is that Smith and Robbie have really good chemistry and play off each other really well. Their relationship -such as it is- isn’t all that believable but their collective performance is good enough to make it work. Many of their scenes together are a lot of fun to watch and their collective performance elevates the superficial material.
There weren’t many other engaging characters but a particular highlight was Gerald McRaney’s Ownes. He has a constantly dry sarcastic wit and clearly has absolutely no time for Nicky or anyone else around him. His long rants are nothing short of hilarious and it could be sort of cathartic to see Nicky put in his place now and again.
An entertaining if flawed film that coasts by on the charisma of Will Smith making the logical problems less obvious.
The most entertaining part of the film is the opening sequence involving the training of Margot Robbie’s Jess but it’s over too quickly and the narrative seems to skip from unskilled to expert without much development. Also, most of her manipulation skills are founded on how attractive she is which seems a bit lazy and sexist.
It’s Will Smith’s show for sure and he does a really good job playing a character that he has played many times before. There are no surprises in his performance but he does carry the narrative really well. As always Will Smith is a charismatic presence who remains very watchable.
The plot is a bit messy and actively encourages constant second guessing as it progresses. As long as you assume that Will Smith’s Nicky is always lying then you’re pretty much onto a winner in most cases. This film definitely favours style over substance with more of the film geared to look cool rather than make sense. Many of the cons depend on people who are completely OCD about their routines and acting unlike any human being you’ve met.
It’s definitely a lot of fun some of the time but the uneven pacing lets it down constantly. Smith and Robbie have good chemistry but their characters are pretty thinly written. This is definitely a case of the material being elevated by the star power involved.