A con artist movie has to be clever. It’s what puts the “art” in “con artist”. Focus may have all of the confidence of a con man, but it never earns any of that confidence. Any good con involves misdirection and slight of hand, but writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are more concerned with the distraction than the payoff. Everything about the movie is slick, pretty, and without an ounce of substance as the filmmakers try to force a romance between two actors with no chemistry and pickup a score minus the effort.
Nicky (Will Smith) is a lifelong conman who picks up eager protégé Jess (Margot Robbie) after she clumsily tries to pull a scam on him in New York. The two head down to New Orleans for the football championship (the film couldn’t get the rights to use “Super Bowl”) and Nicky shows her his surprisingly massive operation, which involves a collection of conmen running crimes across the city ranging from petty larceny to identity theft. When the two grifters start falling for each other, Nicky becomes scared of violating his rule that “there’s no room for heart in this game.”
There’s no room for heart in Focus either. Too lethargic to embrace the vivacity of a conman movie, Focus is content to be a romantic comedy where the romance falls flat and the jokes are more pithy than witty. The romance between Smith and Robbie (who happens to be almost twice her age, but hey, that’s Hollywood for you) is absolutely inert. They’re two attractive people, and that’s supposed to be good enough. Smith and Robbie are both fine actors and neither one gives a bad performance, but they have no spark together, which is a problem since their relationship is the crux of the picture.
The movie certainly doesn’t rest on the merits of its con because it constantly hides information from the audience. A good conman movie presents everything up front, and uses that information to purposefully lead you to a false conclusion. Focus withholds information, so of course we reach a false conclusion. Furthermore, scenes are dropped in not for the benefit of the plot, but solely for our purpose so that the directors can “surprise” us later. It’s the difference between a trick and a lie and Focus lies like an idiot because it’s not smart enough to fool us.
With no romance and no con, the film just coasts on being handsomely set and shot. We take in the sights of New Orleans, and then when the characters move to Buenos Aires, the picture could double as a tourist ad for Argentine city. And yet the movie still manages to lose energy by having no sense of pacing, no urgency, and only sporadically providing bouts of dramatic tension or solid comedy. At times it feels like a test of whether or not Smith can still charm an audience with a bashful smile, a load boast, and a sly look. He’s still got “it”, but not as much as he used to.
However, it’s not enough for a conman movie to be charming; it has to be skillful, and that takes the intelligence and energy Focus sorely lacks. The film is smooth to the point of being insubstantial, and it’s more slimy than slippery as it brazenly cheats the audience. Focus may divert our attention, but that’s only because we’ve fallen asleep.