Who knew petty crime could be so much fun? Focus, a tale of charming pickpockets, con-men and confidence tricksters, treats theft as an art form. Our hero, Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), is essentially an evil Derren Brown. Through a combination of psychological tricks, subconscious programming and old-school grifting, he manipulates his marks so expertly they only notice they’ve been taken for a ride when he’s long gone, if at all.
Focus is a film of two halves, the first taking place in New Orleans over the week of the Super Bowl. With thousands of booze-soaked tourists flocking into town, Nicky spies opportunity. He promptly assembles a professional pickpocket gang that swoops through the streets with clockwork synchronicity. One thief distracts, another removes the mark’s wallet, a third immediately scarpers with the loot. These wallets get funnelled straight to an office complex where they’re stripped of cash, the cards cloned, accounts emptied and the money laundered through consumer electronics.
Complicating things for Nicky is the presence of the ‘the girl.’ Jess (Margot Robbie) is a beautiful ingenue thief, talented and eager to learn the tricks of the trade. As a distraction for beered-up, lascivious tourists, she’s the best around, her slinky hot pink dress allowing the thieves to strip the punters bare. Puffed up on the thrill of the game, Jess and Nicky are soon intimately involved, violating the one rule of conmanship – no emotional attachments.
The second portion of the film picks up three years later in Buenos Aires, where Jess and Nicky are thrown back together for a big score. This time, their target is a gathering of Formula 1 millionaires, and each other. Navigating a threatening world of big money, bodyguards and sleazy race-world characters, their commitment to the rules of the con is tested to the limit.
Shot with an air of woozy, subtly 1960s cool, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa pull out all the stops to seduce the audience with their glitzy world of gentlemen thieves. Viewers swan around high-class hotels, through swanky Superbowl lounges, onto exclusive South American villas and into cocktail parties infested with young, monied, beautiful things. Xavier Grobet’s cinematography slickly echoes adverts for perfumes, luxury cars and ostentatious watches, yet the product on sale here is liberation through amorality.
The core element of the con-man film is that the audience is the true mark. Using subtle misdirection, this genre leads us to believe one thing, then pulls the rug out from under us to reveal that everything we knew was a lie. This structure leads to quicksand plots of constantly shifting motivations and allegiances, where we’re largely in the dark about what’s ‘really’ going on until just before the credits roll. Focus sticks to these principles like glue, leading to a skeptical viewing experience as you suspect every character of trying to screw everyone else over.
For my money, the pinnacle of the genre is Fabián Bielinsky’s 2000 Nine Queens, which follows a pair of low-level confidence tricksters trapped in a spiralling, high-stakes con. An established classic, the film functions as much as study of financial desperation as it does of criminal techniques. Unfortunately, Focus isn’t half as successful, primarily because we never remotely feel that these characters ‘need’ to steal to survive.
That’s not quite a death-blow though. Smith’s bucketloads of charisma easily make the obviously well-off, sports-car-driving, expensive-suit-wearing Nicky palatable to audiences – we root for him in spite of our better judgment. This feeds into some refreshing subtle satire in the first half. With their office headquarters, precise money laundering operation and penchant for smart suits, it’s easy to read Nicky’s operation as a jab at the corporations that craftily pick our pockets. In wallowing in luxury, huge piles of cash and luxury goods, there’s a strand of The Wolf of Wall Street present, both films having fooled us into siding with the thieves rather than our true on-screen representatives: their clueless victims.
It’s relatively meaty stuff, and it’s transgressive to see a mainstream film take this much unalloyed pleasure in crime. Unfortunately, post time-skip, Focus jettisons every one of these interested elements and becomes a lightly fluffy romantic caper. While it’s nice to see Smith proved wrong about his 2007 declaration that a subtly racist Hollywood would never let him play a romance plot with a white woman, this central relationship just doesn’t work.
Part of that is because these character’s natures mean we’re never sure if they’re being sincere in their feelings or just playing the other, but a larger problem is that Smith and Robbie have zero erotic chemistry. There’s a promising early scene where Smith demonstrates his sleight of hand by stripping Robbie of her jewellery and purse, but it’s all downhill from there. For example, in the (ultra-chaste) bedroom scenes, they gossip like co-workers more than lovers. By the final scenes, we simply don’t care whether they end up together, with the film draining of tension as it illogically twists one time too many and then perfunctorily cuts to credits.
The disappointing back-half of the film makes Focus a rather unsatisfying experience, but not a complete waste of time. If you want beautiful, well-dressed people firing witty dialogue at each other in pretty locations, then Focus won’t let you down. But there’s a tantalizing satirical underbelly to this ultra-organized, superhumanly competent world of crime that’s all-too-briefly briefly glimpsed before vanishing in a puff of fluffy melodrama.
Don't get me wrong, Focus definitely has its moments, but it's far from essential viewing.