“Focus” ends the way it begins: with stylish shots, smooth, jazzy music and Will Smith at the center of his carefully crafted world. However, in the two hours from the film’s start to close, “Focus,” although forced and predictable at times, plays with the viewers expectations in a unique and engaging way.
Rave and Quality 16
The smooth cinematography, cliched dialogue and drawn-out pace makes certain scenes of “Focus” seem like a floundering attempt at romantic comedy. However, the film actually succeeds in using these tools to manipulate its audience into the dynamic of deceiver versus deceived. Nick (Will Smith, “I Am Legend”) is a high-level con-man who Jess (Margot Robbie, “The Wolf of Wall Street”), an amateur thief, attempts to scam one evening at a hotel restaurant. After failing, she begs him to help her improve as a con, and the two begin a long, twisted relationship through the hidden and deceptive world of professional fraud. Although the story is drawn-out and winding, it’s cheaply satisfying to watch the two work through schemes as small as pickpocketing on a busy New Orleans street to priming billionaire gamblers to place predictable bets.
The interactions between Nick and Jess often appear forced, and where another movie would cut the scene and spare its audience the more mediocre moments of conversation, “Focus” chooses to keep the camera rolling, gambling its viewers’ attention and respect for the hopefully lucrative payout when the characters’ shocking true intentions are revealed. For as many failed and unbelievable moments the movie has, there are an equal number of plot twists that play off these disingenuous interactions, validating their place within the film.
However, no number of clever loopholes and narrative backpedaling can make the superstar personas of Smith and Robbie relatable or believable. The script works in Smith’s favor, giving him more than enough of the vague, yet affirmative monologues he excels at. Despite this, his acting is difficult to read emotionally, and, by the film’s end, it’s still unclear what his character’s true intentions are. (Though maybe this is fitting within the deceptive theme of the story.) Similarly, Robbie’s role seems perfectly written for her, and she easily inserts herself into the typical cool girl archetype, laughing at everyone’s jokes, shocking them with her small instances of cleverness and remaining celestially gorgeous all the while. The two seem to play to what is expected of them as major Hollywood stars instead of playing the actual characters, and this takes the film one step further away from realism or plausibility.
The overall composition is strangely professional and detached, which makes it difficult to engage with the story or characters until the actual plot becomes dynamic. There’s no transition between scenes, and those smash cuts paired with the long, unmotivated dialogues between Smith and Robbie make the film feel more like a writing exercise than a final product. There’s a generic, hotel lobby jazz playing in the back of most of the scenes, and while this feels like a bad example of big-budget filmmaking in the beginning, as the story of deception continues the stylistic predictability begins to seem intentional and gives the impression that the film itself is one of the high-powered schemes Nick and Jess pull off with ease.
There are multiple moments where it seems like the conman-story-with-a-twist plot has been pushed too far, and the romantic acting and high-risk stakes have become entirely unbelievable. However, where “Focus” succeeds is its ability to continually reflect on its weaknesses, usurping previously unbelievable moments with grand explanations of conniving deception, providing its audience with a cheap but entertaining thrill ride.