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Movie Review: ‘Focus’ Does Not Click Overall; Features Good Scenes and Characters

By Bob Garver

Regular readers should know by now that I’m not a big fan of con artist movies. I’ve seen enough to know that it’s pointless to get invested in the story or characters because there’s inevitably going to be a huge twist in the last five minutes where it’s revealed that, surprise, it was a big con the whole time. But honest or not (and I’ll tell you that it’s often not), the con artists in “Focus” are undeniably charming, and I think that counts for a lot.

focusThe film tracks two major con jobs, three years apart, which basically makes for two movies in one. In the first, professional Nicky (Will Smith) takes floundering rookie Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing as he and a surprisingly large team perform a series of flim-flams in New Orleans on the weekend of a big football game. A lot of what they do is pickpocketing, and there’s something of a competition over who can do it most effortlessly. These scenes made me paranoid about pickpockets, and I constantly found myself feeling for my wallet from my seated position. The storyline culminates at the game itself, where compulsive gambler Nicky bets the entire team’s earnings in a series of challenges with an even crazier gambler (B.D. Wong). This sequence is a wonderful combination of tense and funny, but even with an explanation that’s easy to follow, it doesn’t make any sense. Nicky is forced to abandon Jess despite having fallen madly in love with her.

Three years pass and Nicky and Jess meet up again in Argentina. Nicky is hired by racecar tycoon Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to perform a con that sabotages the other teams. Garriga has an assistant named Owens (Gerald McRaney, a scene-stealer in a movie full of scene-stealers) who is not one to be crossed. One more thing about Garriga – Jess is his lover. This makes things complicated with Nicky, or maybe it makes things easier. This storyline is pretty hard to follow, especially at the end when twist after twist piles up. Though in hindsight I guess it does ultimately make sense, giving it the opposite problem as the first storyline.

Neither plot is as tight as it could be, but in this movie, the plot takes a backseat to the characters and their charisma. Will Smith is back in full form after making some unfortunate career decisions. But it’s Margot Robbie who takes this film to another level. As high as I was on her going into this movie – I think she should have should have been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I adore her even more now. Hollywood needs to start putting her on the covers of all their magazines right away. In a movie like this, it’s hard to know how the characters really feel about each other, but never for a second do I doubt that Nicky is in love with Jess because I can’t see how anybody couldn’t be in love with her. Not even if she robbed them.

“Focus” does fall into a lot of those traps that I don’t like about con artist movies, not the least of which is that you can never really trust the characters. Or at least you can’t trust them to be honest. You can trust them to be consistently passionate, clever and funny. All the characters are compelling, not just Nicky and Jess, but also everyone from the comic relief to villains to one-scene wonders. The story never really clicks overall, but there are many memorable scenes. The best is probably the one with Wong, but really I like anything where the characters just converse without the plot getting in the way. I can see where people would think that a disingenuous movie like this is a ripoff, but I think you’ll have a lot of fun being ripped off.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.