Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus seems largely shaped as an attempt for Will Smith to regain his stature as the preeminent star of multi-demographic, quasi-adult entertainments. As Nicky, a professional con man intermittently working with a league of fellow grifters, the actor creates a character similar to Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crowne, an upscale bad boy both looking for love and unable to accept it. At times, Smith’s performance suggests a self-excoriating perspective on the career of a pretender, but Focus turns out to instead be a strained trumpeting of the return of the proverbial king of the box office.
It’s not surprising, then, that the film comes off as a retread of the action-comedies that defined Smith’s salad days in the 1990s. Focus is less about any one villain Nicky encounters than his relationship with Jess (Margot Robbie), a young criminal Smith’s master thief scouts while in New York. Their touch-and-go partnership and eventual romance is the center of the film, and yet the script isn’t built on what bonds them, but rather on lengthy platitudes about misdirection, embedded symbols, and the art of the con. The problem is that there’s no real art to Nicky’s cons: They all seem so effortless and perfectly choreographed and timed, but there’s no work to their work, no real risk of failure to build genuine suspense, and no wisdom offered that doesn’t sound lifted from Ocean’s Eleven, The Grifters, or House of Games.
Ficarra and Requa made their names with I Love You Philip Morris, an imperfect but oddly wise and outlandish comedy about a different pair of crooks. Unlike that film’s near-absurdist style, Focus is shot and edited largely for zip and sturdy competence, which sadly does nothing to even out the filmmakers’ erratic tone or convoluted script. An unfortunate byproduct of this is that the more memorable lines are the jokes that aspire to nothing so much as the upper echelons of the Seth MacFarlane School of Crass Humor for Boys. At one point, Jess flirtatiously suggests that she may have been roofied, and Nicky compares a night in bed with him to a “Saudi bachelor party.” There’s also an excruciatingly long sequence in which a New Orleans businessman (BD Wong) faces off with Nicky over a series of high-stakes football bets, eventually incapable of praising nothing more than Nicky’s big, swaying balls.
All of this culminates with a vague double-cross involving secret engineering plans and car racing in Buenos Aires, with Gerald McRaney and Rodrigo Santoro playing a duo of corporate marks. The talk continues to be primarily gibberish about the power of illusion, trust, and the super-rare skills needed to do what Nicky and Jess do, even though nearly everyone in the film seems to have similar talents. None of this rambling resonates, as the filmmakers seem too busy reminding the audience how intricate these heists are to ever visually express the precision, intellect, and physical ability required to pull off a serious crime. And neither the dialogue nor the storytelling is clever enough to even properly mask the fact that the plot is a shallow, lazy bid to allow Smith to preen for about 100 minutes. The movie itself is a bad con job, so foolishly conceived in its muddled inner-workings that even the actor who once confidently invaded modern-day Cuba alongside Martin Lawrence can’t sell it.