In 2006, the BBC broadcasted a television series called Hustle that ran for 8 seasons and followed a group of elite con-artists pulling off scams, and it was incredibly entertaining. Every single one of the 48 episodes involved a clever, solitary twist at the end of each 60 minute chapter. If this can be done 48 times successfully, why can it not be done in a single 105 minute film boldly named Focus?
Getting off to a great start, Focus quickly showcases the very real and very devious world of grifting. Will Smith plays longtime grifter Nicky, who meets fellow hustler Jess (Margot Robbie) under some interesting circumstances. As the leader of a criminal organisation of con-artists, Smith takes her under his wing. Yet, this is only the first half of a film that contains two parts which are so disjointed, they almost feel like two separate films.
The first act plays like a traditional con movie and is thoroughly entertaining. There is an excellent little scene where Smith is giving Robbie a master class in pickpocketing. He draws her focus one way so he can take her ring; he draws her focus another way as he takes her watch; it runs at an excellent fast pace of misdirection that is maintained through most of the first act. It is always great fun to see masters of their trade at work in film, and Smith pulls it all off with the level of charisma we have come to expect from him.
There is a particular scene that brings the first act to a climax, and is one of the few that delivers nerve-shattering intensity. The execution is excellent, with a subtle, natural buildup that climaxes to a far better conclusion than the film’s actual end. Smith and Robbie certainly up there game in this moment, and invoke genuine empathy that unfortunately is lacking in the remainder of the film.
Little scenes like this and the artful pickpocketing master class really help flesh out the characters in a way that simple dialogue exchanges cannot. However, around these scenes everything just feels like filler, wasted space that does little to engage with the audience. This is true for the incredibly disappointing second act.
Focus‘ second act plays far more like a romantic drama, where the girl is with the bad guy but the good guys come in and sweep her off her feet. This has been done so many times before and to far better effect. The two leads have a passable chemistry leaving the love story feeling forced. Despite an understandable attraction between the two, it’s hard to buy that they actually like each other, without the plot dictating that they do.
It really feels like Focus would have worked better if the two stars were rivals, continually trying to maintain the upper hand. This certainly feels like the natural progression of the characters leading into the second act, especially given Robbie’s strong portrayal of the devious con-artist Jess. Yet due to poor writing, Robbie is reduced to little more than a damsel in distress.
This is disappointing given that the marketing materials alluded to Robbie having a far more significant role in the overall plot rather than just being Smith’s love interest, and thus much of the film is a wasted opportunity to deviate from norms of the con movie subgenre.
There is no question the two leads are both incredible actors even despite their flailing chemistry in Focus, yet beyond them, the supporting cast is quite weakly utilised. There is so little exposure to the rest of Nicky’s crew and even the so-called ‘villains’. The only character outside the two leads that is expanded remotely is Adrian Martinez’s character Farhad. This is the tech guy who has a few crude lines, and it is later stated this is what he is known for. Before this, he just seems like an obscene creep, and only adds to the aura of filler material throughout.
A film that contains two parts which are so disjointed, they almost feel like two separate films
When we do finally reach a conclusion by the third act, it is an irreparable let down so far from the potential shown in the first. Rather than sticking to one clever twist which is usually sufficient in con movies, we are given three. Focus often feels so self-conscious and lacking in confidence in itself and its auidence to accept just one plot twist, and so it throws so many twists and turns that it just gets lost by the end, and yes, loses complete focus.