Veteran con artist Nicky (Will Smith) takes small-time hustler Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing, in this crime caper with a twist (that Will Smith left his kids at home this time).
Once you stop trying to work out the age gap between the romantic leads (22 years), Focus is fairly entertaining, if never enthralling (unless you find attractive people flirting in sunny locations particularly enthralling).
Their chemistry is engaging, the dialogue funny and the whole thing bathed in a warm neon glow that successfully distracts the squishier parts of the brain. Smith looks impossibly good for a man approaching 50, while the Australian Robbie plays the sexiest dyslexic orphan since Edward Cullen.
But Focus is more focused on Jess’ revealing outfits than her character, which can best be described as regressive; she’s defined by her looks, appears largely incompetent and spends much of the movie trying to make Nicky jealous (not that he’s much better).
In fairness, this is a movie about appearances, surfaces and style. We don’t watch caper films for depth of character; we watch them for their smart plots. And there are episodes of Hustle with smarter plots than this.
One plot point involves Jess and Nicky randomly showing up at the same party (in Buenos Aires, of all places), having not seen each other for three years. You assume this can’t be a coincidence; it’ll be part of some elaborate plot twist. But no. Turns out it is just a coincidence.
The film also manages to peak about halfway through, with a set piece in a football stadium featuring excessive gambling, a lively performance by BD Wong and the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The sequence is a fun exercise in raising the stakes, but the movie never reaches those heights again. Around the halfway mark, the film (and the audience) loses focus.
But the main problem with the story isn’t that it’s ludicrous (which it is), nor that it fizzles out (which it does); it’s that it doesn’t add up. Films like this are more interested in tricking the viewer than making sense; the big reveal (such that it is) renders at least one earlier scene nonsensical, with characters behaving solely for the benefit of the audience, making it impossible for them to guess the twist. It’s cheating.
Focus is on the lower end of the Grifter Scale, with The Sting at the top and the last series of Hustle at the bottom. We don’t feel completely conned, but it’s never more than pleasantly diverting. It seems as though everyone was having too much fun in the Argentine sun to really focus.