Focus – When star power can’t shine a light

Focus tries to lift a lot of its game from con-artist cinematic classics like Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting…unfortunately, it still couldn’t convince Glen Falkenstein that it was a decent film.

 

Will Smith can demand more money than almost any actor in Hollywood. Margot Robbie, fresh off The Wolf of Wall Street, is not starved for choice. They both could have done better than Focus.

Veteran con-man Nicky (Smith) takes amateur Jess (Robbie) under his wing to teach her the trade, predictably falling for her as they accumulate watches, jewellery and a lot of cash. With hints of The Sting and the first “Ocean’s” film, combined with its star power, Focus could easily have followed in those footsteps.

Instead, the semi-entertaining thriller is abruptly fast-forwarded three years and we’re suddenly watching an entirely different movie. Nicky is now trying to con billionaire motorsports fanatic Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro, unrecognisable from his turn as tyrannical Xerxes in 300), when Jess makes a surprise appearance.

Their relationship quickly devolves into a soapish, will they, won’t they melodrama while the cons move deeper into farcical territory. Characters and drama developed in the first act are abandoned – a tense stand-off at the Super Bowl is traded for rants about Twitter. Nicky’s fixation on gambling, a centrepiece of the opening act, is completely forgotten.

As for the cons themselves – any audience is willing to forgo some measure of creative license or improbability for a great pay-off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work when the outcome is so outlandish as to beggar belief or doesn’t add up with what came before. Want to see a cat-and-mouse con movie with consistent, sensical plot twists where characters entertainingly one-up each other? Go see Charade.

The film’s title refers to its most aptly scripted scene where Nicky teaches Jess to grift, causing her to focus on him while he lifts her ring, her bag and her wallet. Focus did the same thing, being just entertaining enough to keep our focus for one and a half hours while they took our money.

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