GLENN Ficarra and John Requa, the writing and directing team behind I Love You Phillip Morris, and Crazy, Stupid, Love, reunite to take us on a bit of a rollicking heist movie (Focus) that has more twists and turns than Will Smith’s career – and funnily enough, also stars Will Smith.
Smith plays Nicky, a very slick and successful con artist who possesses an almost supernatural level of pickpocketing tricks, sleight-of-hand mastery, and other associated swindling skills.
Nicky may be top dog in the underworld, but the incessant urge to swipe everything from everybody means he isn’t too popular.
We meet Nicky eating alone in a restaurant where he watches a would-be con artist, Jess (Margot Robbie) try to scam him.
He strings her along, and ends up taking her in under his wing – inducting her into his band of thieves.
So begins a rather elongated game of cat and mouse, as we follow the pair around the country on a mission to loot as much as possible, though we are never sure who is really playing who.
There’s a marked difference in tone to the earlier offerings by Ficarra and Requa, partly due to the cartoonish nature of the characters in Focus, but also partly due to the casting.
Smith is never quite convincing as the con-man who almost has it all, and while he does pull off the on-the-job pzazz, he seems oddly out of place when it comes to some of the grittier human elements that try, but fail, to break through to the story.
Thankfully, in Jess we have an instantly more accessible character, who manages to capture a more even picture of the highs and the lows of skulduggery.
Following on from a great performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie works wonderfully here. She is versatile enough to breeze through the lighter scenes and strong enough to carry the bulk of responsibility when things get a little more serious.
It is the great on-screen chemistry between Robbie and Smith that keeps Focus rolling at the times it lets up. Because yes – obviously – they fall in love and that just complicates everything.
While there is the inevitable big job (the job that will mean “we can retire and never work again in this filthy business again” level of job) brewing, the real focus of the film is on the relationship between Jess and Nicky.
Nicky is honest about being dishonest, and there’s a constant letting out and reeling in process in play with Jess.
We’re never quite sure whether Nicky is being genuine in his affection, or whether he is using Jess, or if Jess is using him. After things go a little sour, we join the gang three years on, and the mystery is deepened.
There are moments where this enjoyable tension is dragged out to the point of tedium in the middle, and farce towards the end, but it doesn’t spoil the overall effect.
The problem with Focus is that it has a slight personality crisis – on the one hand, we have a light, funny, action movie. On the other, there’s the serious, heavier side, full of scheming and high-drama.
They both can work okay, but the transition between them is turbulent and distracting. Think of Focus as a colourful romp across the criminal underbelly, and you’ll get by just fine.
Try to follow it as a serious heist movie, however, and you’ll end up just like one of the victims: you’ll be left feeling spun-out and confused, grumbling that your wallet is feeling lighter.