Focus could have been so very different. In its earliest incarnation it starred Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. When they dropped out it became Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart before Affleck dropped out and Will Smith came on board. The age gap between Smith and Stewart was deemed too big so she departed and, finally, in came the scene-stealing Wolf Of Wall Street actress Margot Robbie. It’s best to ignore the fact that Robbie and Stewart were born the same year if you’re scratching your head as to the “age gap” issue. Like the casting merry-go-round the film went through Focus feels a little muddled.
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is the king of grifting; he’s slicker than an otter dipped in oil, has a loyal crew who know their stuff and he never, ever breaks character. On a chance encounter one night he meets Jess (Robbie) who is determined to become a con-woman herself. Taking her under his wing Nick shows Jess the ropes before first recruiting her to his crew and then falling in love with her. With the con accomplished Nicky realises his affections for Jess are clouding his judgment so abandons her. Years later, with Nicky deep in to a new con, Jess turns up to really muddy the water.
The key to any good con movie is like a perfectly timed slight of hand. You let the audience think they know what they’re seeing only to pull an ace out of the hole at the last minute to smile inducing, smart levels of satisfaction. It’s not always an easy sell, for every Ocean’s Eleven there’s an Ocean’s Twelve, for every The Sting there’s a Lucky Number Slevin. It’s just as easy to drop the deck as it is fan it out in style.
Focus falls somewhere between the two. On the one hand the dialogue is crisp, the con world created is vibrant and it always, just about, keeps you guessing as to who is conning who. But the problem is it never quite satisfies. Instead it leaves you frowning wondering what could have been. After all this is a film from the directors of Crazy Stupid Love (hence the Gosling-Stone connection), a film that managed to take the tired old romantic comedy formula and inject something new in to it. Focus never does that but rather, like Smith’s Nicky, oozes charm that always feels like little more than a façade.
Smith is on good form, his ability to be both confident and a little damaged helping build Nicky into something of an enigma. Robbie continues her upwards trajectory of leading ladies, her Jess is ridiculously sexy and, if it weren’t for a huge misstep in the script, seems to have the smarts to fool even the often patronising Nicky.
And therein lies the problem; Nicky is not always the most likable of characters whereas Jess is. You want her to be the one to walk away smiling, femme fatale swagger in hand but instead the impetuous always rests upon Smith’s broad shoulders. It’s hard not to imagine what kind of magic could have been created if Gosling and Stone had ended up sizzling in this narrative.
It looks like it is going well until the final reveal at which point Focus rapidly becomes blurry and leaves you frustrated rather than satisfied.