Part of the fun of watching a magic show is knowing that it’s all an illusion. Scouring the magician’s process step-by-step, searching for a hole in her act, hoping that maybe, just maybe, we’ll be the one person in the audience that can’t be fooled. When the magician reveals the prestige (thanks Chris Nolan), we think back on each and every moment of the show and try to figure it out once again. It’s a ton of fun, and cool as it would be to know that true magic exists, if it turned out that David Copperfield and his ilk were actual wizards, magic shows would be pretty lame. For this reason, and a litany of others, Focus is a failure.
This problem becomes apparent within the first few minutes of the film. Seasoned con man Nicky (Will Smith) is teaching wannabe con woman, Jess (Margot Robbie) how to properly pick pockets. He flirts with her as he lifts items off of her person, simultaneously wowing and wooing her. Only thing is, the entire sequence is shot from the shoulders up, and as the items Nicky steals comically increase in size, it’s clear that it’s all camera tricks and not an ounce of prestidigitation.
A bit later in the movie there is a sequence where Nick shuffles Jess onto his hotel balcony in an effort to hide her from a villainous snoop. Naturally, the villain checks the balcony only to find that she’s gone. Phew. But where did she go? Why, to the neighboring balcony, of course! A neighboring balcony which would be impossible to access unless you’re Spider-man. Jess is not Spider-man. And the closest thing to an explanation being offered is Nick having an incredulous “whaaa?” moment. It seems like small potatoes, but I really think we’re owed a bit more. It’s not like a scene was cut, so much as the writers didn’t care.
When we pull back the lens, we can see that the construction of the entire movie falters in the exact same way. As each plot ‘revelation’ comes to pass, we find that we were never even given enough information to figure it all out in the first place. Where’s the fun in that? Ocean’s Eleven works because we’re one step behind as we watch the heist play out. Even when we reach the rug-pulling moment, we don’t feel deceived. In Focus, we are shown the loot and told how it was stolen after the fact. The house of cards never falls because it has been glued together. This is painfully lazy screenwriting.
Ethically, Focus is a mess as well. As Jess and Nicky work their way through a variety of cons, we are constantly blasted with the insistence that Nicky is a good person deserving of our sympathies as an audience, while his actions dictate that he’s a very selfish criminal. The movie asks that we root for him by sheer virtue of him being Will Smith. This is particularly troublesome for me, as I haven’t been a Will Smith fan since the turn of the Millenium – er WILLenium.
Margot Robbie exhibits an enthusiasm worth noting considering that she has been given nothing to work with, and that she’s acting opposite Will Smith, who may as well have been asleep. I’d say he phoned it in, but with the caveat that he did so from a can-on-a-string. I pray that Ms. Robbie, who showed considerable talent in The Wolf of Wall Street, doesn’t become relegated to pretty face roles. She’s infinitely better than this movie and it shows.
With a lazy script, lazy central performances, and the look of a straight-to-DVD Nick Cage flick, Focus doesn’t offer much to enjoy. This is low-bar entertainment designed for the least discerning audience. BD Wong has a single scene which might be worth searching on YouTube (his performance is stellar), but otherwise you can skip this one entirely.
Focus opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.