The best con artists let the rube have fun while they’re being hustled. The wonderful new scam-fest, Focus, has learned this lesson well. Of course, none of the scams hold up to later scrutiny, but they’re fun as hell when you’re in the thick of it. Like a simplified Mamet thriller hopped up on Out of Sight juice, Focus breezes by on the confident charm of Will Smith and a clever script that pays off each slight-of-hand with a masterful reveal. So far, this is easily the most entertaining Hollywood film of 2015.
Nicky (Will Smith) is one cool customer. He’s a lifelong grifter who knows that emotion is the enemy of precision. “Love will get you killed in this game,” he tells his insanely gorgeous new protégé Jess (Margot Robbie). That sounds good in theory, but matters of the heart are unpredictable, especially when a hottie like Jess keeps challenging your discipline. Instead of getting bogged down in a lackluster love affair, however, the thrilling first act takes us to the Super Bowl in New Orleans, where football isn’t the only game in town. Nicky and his crew hustle their way to millions in a stylish montage that will have you nervously reaching for your wallet. This sets the stage for a series of increasingly elaborate scams involving a super-secret racecar formula, a couple of double-crosses, and plenty of sexy time.
Unlike the overly-smug 2013 con artist flick, Now You See Me, Focus understands that the con is always secondary to the artist. Here, we get just enough of Nicky’s backstory, including the antics of his derelict father, to lay an emotional foundation for the turmoil to come. This eliminates the need for characters to deliberately withhold information just so they can fool us later (aka: cheating). Each scam hinges on a character’s foibles, even if those foibles were engineered for the scam itself. We’re told, for instance, that Nicky is a compulsive gambler, but we aren’t sure if that’s a real vice or just part of the façade. It isn’t until the hustle unfolds that we see the full picture. Time and time again the filmmakers construct these puzzles, and each time the solution delivers a satisfying conclusion.
The veteran writer-director tandem of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa deserve a huge amount of the credit for their film’s success. Like any good ruse, holding our attention without making things too obvious is a delicate balancing act. Their visual style is all about the steely cool; fixing our focus on the gorgeous cinematography of Xavier Pérez Grobet that harkens back to some of Michael Mann’s best crime thrillers. Tight shots and close-ups keep us curious about what’s happening on the periphery. Focus also features some amazing sound mixing, with ambient noises expertly woven into the funk-laced soundtrack (listen for the screeching tires that echo into the following scene before gradually blending into the backing score). Everything is designed to create a hip, retro-vibe without making things too washed out or grainy; to seamlessly meld a classic hustle with some modern pizazz.
Ficarra and Requa use sound and visual elements to give Focus an unrelenting pace that compensates for a clear lack of dramatic urgency in the script. There are no ticking time bombs or artificial deadlines, just the methodical unwinding of a carefully-constructed artifice. Each meticulous detail is placed strategically throughout the script, challenging you to find its proper context within the larger story. This is a lean, economical script that takes you to the expected destination in a wholly unexpected way. If the script has a central flaw it’s the character of Jess, who shines in the first act only to recede into a passive object of desire for the remainder of the film. She is expertly positioned as Nicky’s primary adversary, but those avenues are never fully explored. This limits the stakes of Focus, making it more of a playful diversion than a full-fledged rollercoaster.
Self-indulgent missteps like After Earth have made it easy to dismiss Will Smith, but there is no denying his star power here. Focus gives him the perfect vehicle to flash his rambunctious smile while still forcing him to earn his paycheck. The assertive, witty dialogue allows him to move convincingly between disarming charm and startling nihilism. His brutal deconstruction of the female psyche, for instance, feels darker than anything he’s done before. We also get strong supporting performances from Adrian Martinez as Nicky’s gregarious inside man, BD Wong as a high-stakes adventurer, and a hilariously vulgar turn from Gerald McRaney as the film’s de facto villain. Robbie is serviceable as Smith’s romantic obsession, though their smoldering chemistry never truly ignites in Clooney-Lopez fashion. There’s no deny the camera absolutely loves her, but Robbie’s acting chops remain dubious at best. Still, this is Smith’s film and he never lets it out of his sight.
Focus is a stylish film that injects plenty of substance to keep you invested in its story. Sadly, if the atrocious trailers and television spots are any indication, the studios have no clue how to market it. You have comedy, action, thrills, romance, and a clever script that demands your attention; difficult to encapsulate in a 30-second teaser. Focus will succeed or fail based on word-of-mouth and a willingness to give Smith a chance at redemption. It’s a chance you won’t regret taking, even though you’ll leave the theater clinging to your purse.