There are two movies going on in Focus. But thankfully it’s not at all the kind of movie where those two movies are going on simultaneously. Focus has a very clear divide on the two halves of its story, right down to being separated by both time and location. The unfortunate thing is that one of these is a pretty brisk and enjoyable if not revelatory caper and the other is a pretty underwhelming romance.
But that’s still better than my expectations from a very confusing trailer: for one, it really knows how to make itself feel a lot more shimmering and glossy to the point that it even compliments the whole con artistry subject of the movie by having cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet feel more and more in on the game than the audiences. It’s at once a way to let us in on the mind of lead Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) and a way to show how obtuse it is to figure out what’s going on in his mind.
For another, Jon Kovac’s editing within the first half of the film is nicely quick and catchy like the wit of Margot Robbie’s sizzling and sassy performance as Nicky’s protege Jess Barrett. The combined lead of Smith, Kovac, and directors Glenn Ficara & John Requa don’t make us feel to thrust around in the con and it doesn’t give off half the attitude of a trickster that it thinks it gives us, but it totally grants momentum and poppy rhythm to the con, especially when Nicky is showing Jess (and through Jess, the audience) the rules and ropes of their game.
That sort of educational guide to Zen or the Art of the Con is more or less what entails of the first half of the movie – we see Nicky and Jess meet on account of the former tagging the latter as inexperienced when she tries to pull a grift on him. Jess follows Nicky to New Orleans and gets involved in his network of con artists while they all team up to pull off a giant heist at the Superbowl. In the meantime, as would be expected, the script demands that Nicky and Jess begin to become interested in each other, something Nicky specifically sermons against – personal involvement in the con. This would probably be the best entry position for a retro-screwball comedy in the vein of the 30s (which I would absolutely die for), but alas that’s not the case. This romance ends with a surprising tragedy at hand, especially for Jess. And thus ends the really enjoyable and well-crafted first half. It’s no Ocean’s Eleven, but at least it’s not Ocean’s 11.
The editing in the second half, though, is really not as enjoyable. It’s more relaxed, more calm, and… I hate to say it, boring simply because it is slower. Normally, I’m glad to give shots a chance to breathe, but when the movie is trying to be so convinced that it is raising the stakes this time around and making them more personal… the whole second half just ends feels less palatable because it doesn’t giving such sobriety any real weight or momentum. This is also because Smith, by this point, clearly isn’t as invested in Nicky and Jess’ chemistry as Robbie is (I wish this movie had more of an audience simply for her performance. She is the only thing I look forward to in the very unappealing Suicide Squad). I mean, they still work wonders with what they’re given and have more chemistry than Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, but it’s simply not enough to cover for the fact that the Buenos Aires race car drift at the center of the second half is less complex than the Super Bowl supercon and, as a result, extremely uninteresting. And before very long, the movie just starts to fizzle out slowly rather than feel like it’s coming to any true climax.
Hell, they don’t even get to have the wide-range backdrop of characters the first half had to catapult off of: from B.D. Wong’s bug-eyed wild glee, to Adrian Martinez’s lax vulgarity (ok… he gets a teensy appearance in the second half, but he was much more lovable and involved in the first), to an always-welcome Thomas Lennon keeping it ordered and professional and only shifting eyes to keep checking out other angles. No, in the second half, we have Rodrigo Santoro being the most uncompelling antagonist ever in existence (he’s more inconsequential than he is in the 300 films – at least that was visually off-kilter) and Gerald McRainey being standard gruff guy and the one moment where he can actually give revelation to the film, he just dumps last-second exposition to the film and peaces out.
There’s really not much more I feel I can say about the film: the two parallels and the distinct decline in quality once the movie changes locations is really jarring enough to make me just wait it out in the theater and that’s unfortunate, because the things that work in Focus are truly a lot of fun. One feels another good draft of the script (also written by Ficara & Requa) could have answered for this and maybe having two separate editors for each half as well, because the leads and Grobet’s good ol’ glazy and glassy-eyed lenswork are just really working to keep the film afloat until the end and their heroic heavy lifting at least keeps the film toeing the line of boredom rather than letting it go to mediocrity in the end. It probably could have built their career (or in the case of Smith, rebooted it) if the film had made a bigger splash.
Like I said, it’s no Ocean’s Eleven, but at least it’s no Ocean’s 11.
(and a bit of unnecessary anecdote, but one of my classmates in ASU also had a thesis short film called Focus that I just had so much time trying to keep out of my mind every time I heard this movie’s title or even saw a poster).