Written by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney
Pulling off a con requires a level of composure and acting ability I could never attain. With sensitive moments where scenarios can turn on a dime, it comes with plenty of luck, but also loads of preparation, which Focus attempts to display. Utilizing its stars and environments as distractions in their own way, this film gets the job done in creating a thoroughly entertaining and fun viewing experience.
After seeing right through Jess’s (Margot Robbie) grift attempt, experienced con man, Nicky (Will Smith), decides to teach her a lesson about the power of focus when pulling a con. This makes Jess want to join Nicky on his next big job, which leads them to New Orleans where they will use the Super Bowl as the venue for their big payday.
Films centered on cons work as a practice in the sleight of hand and can only truly find success when it deceives the audience in the same way it does with the mark within the narrative. Whether I fall for the con is where I judge the effectiveness of the grift overall and despite some narrative qualms, Focus pretty much hits the mark with its intentions. It proves to be quickly-paced and electric to the point where the line between reality and the con begins to get blurred, thus making the events entirely unpredictable.
Having actors portray these types of characters feels like the perfect marriage because of how they can sell certain emotions and actions. It all comes as part of the overall idea of deceiving others and in a sense, an actor’s job constitutes tricking the audience into making them believe the thespians are someone else. Hearing an actor completely disappears behind a performance serves as one of the greatest compliments, especially to highly-recognized stars. Will Smith has enjoyed the fame he has built since the 90s through his hit sit-com and various movies and has maintained superstar status for a while. Casting him and an up and coming star in Margot Robbie makes complete sense.
Just as Smith has to sell himself as a damaged and corruptible man in order to get away with these cons and work the marks, this film almost serves as a step into the big leagues for Robbie. After exploding onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, this film only came two years later and had her firmly take center stage with someone with the gravitas of Smith. Sure, she worked with Leonardo DiCaprio in the Scorsese flick, but Robbie takes center stage with this one and further shows she has the chops to hang with someone like Smith. This step up for her matches what her character, Jess, must do in this narrative, which allows this to be meta in the way the narrative plays out.
Visually glossy in its representation, misdirection becomes key, and watching the way these con artists navigate their way through Bourbon Street during the Super Bowl shows how gullible tourists can be. It certainly gives credence to the fears small-town folks have of going to the big city, where there will be people to take advantage of them. However, with this film, it’s all part of the fun as Nicky’s crew work as a fine-oiled machine in snatching wallets, watches, and all sorts of jewelry in order to contribute to their overall payday. The constant misdirection allows for Focus to never lose its steam when going through the various heists occurring throughout. The potential danger and consequences if they are caught remain apparent in each circumstance with each con getting more dangerous as they go on. Jess’s presence also allows for some of the sequences to be nerve-wracking seeing as the film opens with the reality of her having plenty to learn before she can fully step up to Nicky’s level. Her progression in skill becomes quite the sight and adds to the overall fun.
There certainly are times when Focus gets far too cute with its story and the number of twists it wants us to believe can actually happen but it all comes together as a fun piece of entertainment. It allows Will Smith and Margot Robbie to display exactly what makes them superstars in both their looks but also in the pure charisma they bring to their performances. You can just sit back and enjoy these two feed off each other and completely elevate a story that would have not been nearly as interesting without both of them leading the way.