by Jeff Walls
The con-artist movie has been a popular sub-genre for movie stars to show up in and just be movie stars over the years. From Paul Newman and Robert Redford in 1973’s Oscar-winner The Sting to 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven—a con-artist movie disguised as a heist movie—these movies have been the perfect vehicle for popular and attractive stars to look cool, act cool, and be cool. In the history of movies, few stars have had a cooler persona than Will Smith and so it seems inevitable that he should grace the genre in this year’s Focus.
Smith plays Nicky, a successful swindler who has a chance meeting with Margot Robbie’s Jess. Jess is a small-timer and Nicky quickly uncovers her schemes. Like Redford’s character in The Sting, Jess practically begs Nicky to teach her his tricks. Nicky refuses, but Jess follows him down to New Orleans where he and his crew are preparing to work over the crowd of a major sporting event. Seeing no alternative, Nicky agrees to take on Jess as an “intern.” She picks up the game immediately and Nicky is impressed enough to invite her to attend the game with him, where his gambling addiction appears to get the better of him.
Flash forward three years later and Nicky has turned his attention to the sport of Formula 1 racing. He has gotten involved with a race team owner who wants Nicky to scam a rival into installing a computer system in their cars that will have them driving slower than they think they are. Nicky has a plan on how to pull off the scam, but that is all thrown for a loop when Jess shows up. Jess says she has retired from the game and is just there as the girlfriend of one of the racers, but Nicky and the audience instantly suspect that she is working some kind of angle.
Focus has all the earmarks of a good con movie. It keeps you guessing and second guessing the characters’ motivations throughout the entire runtime, wondering just who is playing who and what is the big con. The intrigue keeps the movie from becoming boring as the audience is always trying to anticipate what will happen next.
Of course, it helps that the movie features actors who are very easy on the eyes and ears, wearing beautiful clothes and acting stylish as only movie stars can do. This does work against the movie at times, though, such as when we are supposed to believe that auto racing professionals will believe Nicky to be an auto engineer, even though he acts more like the movie star and con man that he is.
The movie also suffers from a problem that plagues many movies of its kind. Because the movie has kept the audience in the dark as to the characters’ true motives and intentions, when it comes time to explain the con the movie slows to a crawl so that the characters can explain in flashbacks how they pulled it off. This happens a couple of times in Focus, but is especially a factor in its finale. The movie does remedy this slightly by pulling the rug out from one of these flashbacks, but then it just has to use more dialogue to explain that twist.
It was really nice to see Will Smith back in a movie that just lets him be a movie star. With the exception of Men in Black 3, you really have to go back to 2005’s Hitch to find a movie where he really got to fully use the charm that made him such a big star in the first place. Rising star Margot Robbie is a perfect match for him here. The pair work well together and it is no surprise that they will soon be teaming up again for 2016’s Suicide Squad.
Among other things, Focus sure makes picking someone’s pocket look really easy. I will definitely keep my valuables close by next time I am attending a major event. Focus does not do anything to reinvent the con artist movie, but it doesn’t need to in order for it to be an entertaining escape. If that’s what you are looking for, then this movie won’t feel like its picking your pocket.
Focus opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!