This new Will Smith star-vehicle that’s much less the rage than it would have been a decade ago really is a mess ain’t it? The bifurcated narrative is a lame, unnecessary gesture, and it curdles away any good-cheer built up by the first half, and the darker, more serious ambitions of the piece fall apart under even minor scrutiny. In particular, the way this con-film has to follow in the long tradition of con-films by making the whole film itself something of a con, and then sort of fails to do anything clever or notable with the film-as-object-of-audience-confusion meta-text, is a drag. It makes a great portion of the second half of Focus fall apart rather instantly, as charismatic as Smith and relative newcomer Margot Robbie can be even in these darker regions of the screenplay. It just feels too clinical, as though it had to have a twist because of course these films have twists rather than because this film in particular needed one, or because it found a particularly worthwhile one. The fact is that the screenplay is a fair mess on paper, and it’s no better on screen in the broad strokes.
But damn that first half sure hums, don’t it? Say what you will about critical faculties, but there is a lot to appreciate about Focus, and Smith and Robbie at the top of their game aren’t even the half of it. Certainly, they are absolutely dynamite as elder-statesman con artist Nicky Spurgeon (how’s that for your ’70s style gritty con artist name for you?) and youthful newcomer Jess Barrett respectively. Both are great individually, and there’s an instant movie star aspect to Robbie’s casual mastery of her audience’s eyes and command of the screen, while Smith himself seems more invigorated and passionate than he has been in a good long while. But they’re at their best together, Nicky teaching Jess the rules of the game, and when the film itself is in perfectly snug harmony with their instantly pleasing aims, Focus cannot be beat. This is proudly adult entertainment, a work about entertaining with well-acted, well-paced, well-written situations more than it is a narrative of depth and meaning. It is only when it tries to have depth and meaning, a critical mistake of the modern era when seriousness is often carted out in place of genuine filmmaking smarts, that it runs into problems.
What a luxury that first half is though, filled with intoxicants that do a veritable stray cat strut across the screen and never bat an eye at their total and complete ability to sell the passionate nonsense that makes Focus such a fun, fluffy treat. Certainly, the look of the film is a textbook case in how to use digital cinematography purposefully and with vigor; the pixel-perfect color separation and glossy, artificial sheen so common to the medium absolutely serve the purpose of a high-spirits cavalcade of artifice, which is exactly what the film is in the best sense of the word. After all, it is a work about people whose lives are defined by cheery artifice and selling lies to the public, and digital cinematography couldn’t be a better fit here or anywhere.
Elsewhere, writer-director pair Glen Ficarra and John Requa don’t seem like they are about to set the world on fire or anything, but they exhibit a commendable and confident journeymen quality on paper and behind the camera. The script crackles with wit and dark panache when it isn’t trying to be any more serious than the material warrants, and, beyond the look, they know how to film with clear-handed concision and energy, purposefully cutting on motion to give their long-cons a sense of continual motion and energy and to ramp up the anxiety mid-con. They also realize that a product banking so heavily on its movie star charisma should privilege its movie stars in shots, and they do exactly that. The blocking is also top-notch, and few genres if any require a mastery of blocking – that is, where the actors and objects move within the frame and how they relate to the camera – than the con film, where position is key. It’s practically the first thing Nicky tells Jess in the film, and it’s a great thing that the film itself understands this message, essaying its characters and mimicking their sleight-of-hand with its camerawork to infuse the act of the con with the necessary pageantry to sell the fact that, despite all the secrecy, it’s all a hidden public showpiece, ain’t it?
An altogether sturdy, well-composed, almost dance-like work of unfiltered cinematic razzle-dazzle, until it’s not. Unfortunately, “until it’s not” is only half the film, and we have a whole other fifty minute exercise in semi-confused writing and half-handed gestures to deal with before the end. It’s not that the second half of Focus is bad, but it is misguided, and the strengths of its main talents, both in front of the screen and behind, are better served with the sort of mature immaturity that composes the first half into a real winner. What had been so cheerily sky-high tries to play things low to the ground, and it doesn’t work. Not for the confusing script, not for the larger-than-life performers, and not for direction that favors the superficial (wonderfully so) over the deep. A shame, but Focus is still a worthwhile film. It could have been so much more though, a genuine guilty pleasure without the guilt. As it is, it works, but there are caveats galore.