"Focus", the new film starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie ("The Wolf of Wall Street") as two con-people who may or may not be trying to out-con one another, has some surprisingly well-done elements. While the narrative is involving and well-written, it isn't surprising. There are only so many ways “Focus” can go. Either they are trying to outdo one another or they aren't. You have a fifty-fifty chance of guessing or figuring it out. Once that happens, you then have to look at other things to keep you interested.
Nicky (Smith) and Jess (Robbie) meet in New York. She unwittingly picks the seasoned con-man as a mark and things quickly unravel. But he seems to recognize something in her and gives her a few pointers. A few months later, Jess shows up in New Orleans as Nicky and his crew are running a massive pickpocketing operation. They give her a few tests and then let her join the team. As Nicky takes her under his wing, they become more intimate and this leads Nicky to take some chances he knows he shouldn't. A couple of years later, Nicky is in Buenos Aires, working a new mark, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro, "300", "Love, Actually"), a race car owner who creates a formula that may give his cars an advantage. He wants Nicky to convince his rival, McEwen (Robert Taylor, TV's "Longmire"), an Australian, that a fake version of the formula is real, giving him an even larger edge. But Garriga's security man, Owens (Gerald McRaney) doesn't trust Nicky. And Nicky is shocked to learn that Jess is Garriga's new girlfriend.
Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writing – directing team behind "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "I Love You, Phillip Morris" and the writers of "Bad Santa", "Focus" is a very well-made if unsurprising film. What "Focus" does have going for it is great filmmaking technique, actors who are giving it their all to try to misdirect us and a screenplay filled with a lot of nice, interesting moments. All of this makes the film immensely more watchable than many other recent attempts at this genre.
There are basically three stages to the story, which fits in nicely with the conventionality of a three-act structure. And each stage is set in a new city. Stage One, the introduction, happens in a snow-blanketed New York City. This introduction allows the two to get to know one another, a little, and allows us to learn a bit about them as well. Given this is a film about con-people, anything they say or do is to be regarded with a great deal of skepticism. And we see and learn these things while watching them test each other, pushing a little to see how far they can go. This is also the shortest act, giving just a flirtatious taste of what is to come.
Stage Two moves to New Orleans as the city prepares for a massive football championship. It isn't the Superbowl; I suspect they couldn't get approval to use the major sporting event given the activities depicted in the film, but it is a really, big “Super Bowl”-like event. When Jess arrives in town, she is surprised to find Nicky and he gives her a quick low down of his operations, introducing her to Horst (Brennan Brown, lots of TV work), Nicky's second-in-command, and Farhad (Adrian Martinez), his lascivious hacker. Jess quickly becomes a member of the team, proving she is a quick study and very eager to learn. They also seem impressed by her ability to adapt and everything starts to run very smoothly.
Stage Three? Buenos Aires. This is the longest part of the story, but provides the most complicated con and leads to the most drama in their lives. The length also provides an opportunity to slow everything down - and it does, but not in a terrible way. There are also a number of twists and turns which help hold our attention.
It is slightly strange that "Focus" has such a well-delineated three act structure, the well-established convention of most screenplays. But most of the less creative types in Hollywood would expect the acts to adhere to the 20-50-20 (give or take 10 for each stage) rule. Many in Hollywood actually go to page 20 or 30 and look to see if Act One ends there, Act Two at page 70 - 90 and so forth. If it doesn't, they won't even consider it. In "Focus", each act gets longer, providing more details about the relationship between Nicky and Jess, and more complicated, and more interesting.
With each new city, the filmmakers seem to delight in giving us a picture postcard love letter of the area. I've never been to Buenos Aires, but each new location seems to be presented in the best possible light, no pun intended. In fact, many of these images have the dreamy yet clear, slightly over saturated look of a Michael Mann film. Cinematographer Xavier Gorbet ("Monster House", "I Love You, Phillip Morris") makes each of these places drool worthy. If I were the Director of Tourism in each, I would do whatever I possibly could to sign him for my next batch of commercials.
Smith does some really good work here, giving us his most fully realized character in some time. Nicky has a lot swirling around in his brain, causing him to concentrate on everything going on around him, running all of the permutations in his head. This makes Smith seem pensive and less jokey than he sometimes comes across. When Jess enters his life, he is intrigued by her. And you can often see him trying to fight the growing attraction her feels for her. Or is this part of the con? It's difficult to figure out because he is very guarded.
And, of course, he will find himself attracted to Jess. As Nicky's attraction grows, he finds himself conflicted. Is he making some decisions based on his feelings? This is new territory for him and he isn't sure how to react.
As they reunite in Buenos Aires, they find they have gone a few steps back and have to deal with all that entails before they can move forward. This allows them to recreate the suspicions they may have had previously and wonder again about them.
Let's face it, Margot Robbie was cast as Jess because she is beautiful. She does bring a certain amount of naiveté to the part and helps to convince us that she really is a green con-person. Or is this part of the act? The fact that she manages to keep us guessing is proof that she does have some acting chops.
The supporting cast is all good and helps to convincingly keep us guessing everyone's motives throughout. B.D. Wong and Rodrigo Santoro, as the respective marks - or are they leading this game of cat and mouse? - each seems to have a lot of fun. Wong's character is much more lighthearted, but no less convincing than Santoro's race car owner who seems to feel his entire world rests on one decision.
Gerald McRaney is also convincingly distrustful as Owens, Garriga's security officer. Owens’ distrust could derail Nicky’s plans for a huge payday..
Ficcara and Requa, the writers and directors, have done a pretty admirable job. They give it the old college try and do their best to try to keep us guessing with every twist and turn. That they manage to do this at all is testament to their skills. To compensate for the diminished lack of surprise, they include nice, interesting moments which help to take the story to some unique places. In Buenos Aires, the film cuts to a gruff looking white guy as het gets into his car, visits a pharmacy and buys some things causing the clerk's eyes to raise in question. Then we watch as he gets some food, annoyed by the crowd's cheers as they watch a soccer game. Finally, he gets into his car again. As the scene continues, it surprises us, casting some doubt on what is going on, causing us to question the surety of our convictions that this story can't and won't surprise us. Thankfully, there are more scenes like that. Ficcara and Requa seem best when they are working with scenes like this, allowing us to visit smaller, more intimate details that don't seem to have a place in the overall picture.
They also seem to take a similar approach with the dialogue. It doesn't always, refreshingly, seem 'on the nose'. The writers show some skill at orchestrating conversations between Nicky and Jess that seem more natural, and reveal things about their characters, while retaining a natural feel to the speech and cadence. This is a difficult thing to accomplish, to make such calculated exchanges seem so natural. Trust me, I know.
A lot of the fun of "Focus" comes in following every twist and turn, even when it seems like you know what will happen. The directors have worked very hard to try to make the various, well-trod elements fresh and new. Okay, fresher and newer. And they have had a lot of success, which means that even when the story seems a bit predictable, you still enjoy the ride.