All words: Alan Pyke
At its outset, Focus threatens to be a leaden affair. When veteran con-man Nicky (Will Smith) schools amateur grifter Jess (Margot Robbie) in the scene that serves as set-up for the rest of the movie, their dialogue is a bit too stilted, their chemistry too synthetic and fizzy to stand in for the volatile, organic version of attraction real humans expect from their big-screen betters.
The rocky start gives way to more verdant ground as things progress, thankfully. As Jess and Nicky separate and reconnect along a thieving vector from New Orleans to Argentina, the actors grow into their roles and relationship, and the movie dips a pinkie finger into various conman genre tropes with an almost graceful laziness.
Writer/directors Glen Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa) spike their script with a handful of high-quality lascivious bits, and introduce a healthy cadre of accomplices/villains as Jess and Nicky travel southward and into an emotional Bermuda Triangle. Tech qiz Farhad (a scene-stealing Adrian Martinez) provides the primary comic relief. Deadwood veteran Gerald McRaney’s excellent work as a wary tough-guy gives the Buenos Aires section of the movie a gruff theatrical crackle that helps erase the memory of its slipshod beginnings (he also gets great lines like, “I have one red hair on my taint that tickles when something is afoot, and lately I’ve been scratching my nethers like a fucking macac.”)
As with any movie about sexy thieves, the story isn’t really the point. Technology, voice over, and flashbacks can backfill the plot holes in any heist. This one falls apart under scrutiny a bit easier than most movies of its kind, though. That’s less about any individual implausibility in the escalating sequence of scams and more to do with the weird hodge-podge of stories, stakes, and genre staples being employed. Focus is like if a conman movie fucked a rom-com, only to have a family drama walk in on them together. It simultaneously winks at cheap genre patterns like the One Big Score that lets a thief retire and indulges other familiar gimmicks in the lengthy gambling sequence that rounds out the New Orleans portion of the screenplay. Movies like this have to get by on the charm of their ensembles, and while Smith and Robbie each deliver plenty of it, they still come up quite a bit short of the bar set by stuff like Ocean’s 11. It’s hard to blame them for the clunky overall feel of the film, though, given the movie’s inherent confusion about which type of story it wants to focus on telling.
Visual tricks are in short supply here, and there is none of the highly stylized filmmaking that sexed up Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise and other superior fare in this genre. Ficarra and Requa’s scene-making and world-building techniques do have some charm, though. During zippy pickpocketing sequences in New Orleans, cinematographer Xavier Grobet’s camera is never entirely static. Slow zooms and barely-noticeable pans echo and amplify the physical rhythms of the tightly-choreographed crime spree as Nicky and Jess and the crew collaborate to distract marks and pinch their watches, camera lenses, and credit card numbers.
The initial montage uses downward-looking shots to introduce Manhattan from above, full of blues and black and brake lights. As the plot nears its climax in Buenos Aires, the camera mimics the high-angle downward shots of cityscape from that New York City opening montage, with one shot of an Argentine roundabout almost perfectly mirroring the earlier framing of Columbus Circle. It’s a reminder that being understated isn’t the same as having nothing to say.