by Adam Riske
I did not have a good time watching Focus. In fact, the movie left me annoyed. I think 10 percent of my displeasure with the experience had to do with the fact that I was seeing the movie on a lousy blind date but the majority was the movie’s fault. It’s a lethargic drag when it should have been breezy fun. A movie like this, about con-men (and women), can be a showcase for charismatic stars and directors with some bravado, but with Focus it never quite works despite the ingredients seemingly being there.
Full disclosure – I’m not the biggest fan of movies about con artists. Some, like Catch Me If You Can or Matchstick Men, really work because they are primarily character studies where you get to know (and even like) the flawed protagonists. It’s about them more than the con. But more often than not, con artist movies seem hell-bent on being clever above all else and it becomes a game between the audience and the filmmakers of who’s smarter. The audience wins if they figure out the con before the movie gets to the big reveal, while the director and writers (in an effort to surprise the audience) often cheat or include impossible scenarios in an attempt to win and make sure the audience doesn’t anticipate the surprises. Focus primarily fits in the latter category.
The reason most people will see Focus (like me) is because of the two lead actors – Will Smith and Margot Robbie. It’s competent but disappointing work by the pair. Smith, who I desperately want to see in a good movie again, has more to play and is closer to a three dimensional character than Robbie’s Jess. Nicky is a third-generation career con artist with a gambling problem and also a compulsive liar. With all that baggage, the character is a drag. Smith is an underrated dramatic actor but he can only do so much with such a wet noodle of a character. He has moments where he’s allowed to be charming, but surprisingly those actually work less than his serious moments. His cool guy act feels, maybe for the first time, outdated, like a relic of the 1990s than doesn’t have a place anymore.
There’s one performance though that really drove me up the wall. It’s from Gerald McRaney (Major Dad) who plays one character’s bodyguard/enforcer of sorts. I don’t want to be unkind, but his performance bugged me on such a fundamental level that I have to comment on it. It’s just dreadful. I wanted to fast forward the movie every time he showed up. He’s given what is supposed to be colorful dialogue but his delivery is so stiff and ham-fisted that listening to him deliver it is like being hit in the ear with a bag of porcupines and lead pipes. It’s as if someone cast their dad, who’s never acted, and told him to improv being grumpy. OMG is it terrible.
Also pretty bad is the screenwriting. It’s the type of movie that tries to be funny but never lands a joke and consistently insults your intelligence. Some of the details of the cons are so far-fetched and coincidental that you would have to believe that elements A through Y would take place for the result Z to happen. I can buy imperfections after I watch a movie, but they shouldn’t be in such plain sight during my viewing experience. It’s annoying. There are also stupid details, like Smith’s team of con artists consisting of, like, 30 people for a heist that nets them $1.2 million. That’s $40K each? Doesn’t seem worth the effort to me. Also, wouldn’t you think it would be difficult to have to control that many disreputable people at one time?
The Expendables 2 podcast, it’s a case of a beautiful woman taking off her dress only to turn around and show you her dick.
I wanted to have a good time at Focus. But instead of being fun, the movie is mostly just boring. The energy really sags in the second half, causing the 105 minute runtime to feel like 150 minutes. After I Love You Phillip Morris (which I liked), Crazy, Stupid, Love (which I didn’t) and now Focus, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are establishing themselves as being filmmakers interested in stories about people playing games or performing in their real lives. It’s an interesting through-line; I just wish I enjoyed their movies more. They should have more BD Wong in them.