Focus stars Will Smith as Nicky, a smooth con man you’re meant to love mostly because he’s played by Will Smith. The story he goes through is stylistically similar to Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 Ocean’s Eleven, with beautiful people in beautiful clothes gallivanting about in beautiful parts of the world. In the opening moments, Nicky meets Jess (Margot Robbie), a beautiful blonde attempting to run a con on him, completely unaware that he’s one of the world’s most notorious con men. Through her sheer perseverance and his “Well, she is really hot,” the two partner up, drifting through a surprisingly low-stakes, oddly broody romantic drama with con movie trappings. It is neither a great nor a terrible movie, carried along mostly by the sense that Will Smith still has at least some of that old charisma while Margot Robbie is the “next big thing” of the moment.
Here are the 5 things I had to learn to just accept as I watching Focus:
Mild Spoilers Await
1. Will Smith is literally old enough to be Margot Robbie’s dad
At one point, 46-year-old Will Smith tells 24-year-old Margot Robbie that she needs to put some damn clothes on. It happens after he’s observed her strolling through an outdoor bar near a pool while wearing the sexiest dang two-piece black bikini you could ever hope to see, happily showcasing the obvious hard work she’s put into her body. It is meant to be a funny moment because Robbie’s character has clearly succeeded at making Smith’s character jealous, briefly pulling his focus away from the task at hand. The line is delivered with Smith’s signature comedic timing, and the result should be a funny moment. However, he almost comes off more like a disapproving father than a jilted lover because as much as the film ignores this fact it is apparent from the get-go that Will Smith’s love interest is much younger than him. To put it into context, when The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire premiered in 1990 Margot Robbie was barely 2 months old.
Of course, Sean Connery once had a love interest who was 39 years younger than him, Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1999’s Entrapment. That’s obviously an extreme example, but older male actors get love interests who are ridiculously young all the time. In the case of Focus, while Will Smith is finally starting to show his age in his face he’s still not aging like the rest of us. For example, he his shirtless multiple times through this film, and each times is a real treat for anyone who likes staring at a perfectly sculpted torso. His abs, in particular, are clearly Suicide Squad-ready. For her part, Robbie can pass for a little older. So, the age discrepancy between the two of them need not be a distraction as they mostly have a natural chemistry together which never makes you simply assume Smith’s desire to be with her is just a man going through a mid-life crisis. If you can’t get past it, though, then boy are you probably not going to like the Suicide Squad next year when we’ll get to see Smith as Deadshot and Robbie as Harley Quinn, two characters who have actually been romantically paired in the comic books.
2. The con operation Will Smith runs is not nearly as charming as the film thinks it is.
There is an enjoyable and persistent energy to the first quarter of the film when Margot Robbie functions as a classic audience surrogate figure who is constantly having the specifics of Will Smith’s multi-faceted, 30+ person con operation explained to her. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s camera neatly swoops in and out of crowd scenes, first in a hotel bar, then down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, showcasing the beautiful coordination among the con artists who lift wallets and watches off of tourists without them ever noticing. In fact, the con artists seem so crazily efficient at what they do it may give you second thoughts about ever visiting such obvious tourist hot spots as Mardi Gras or the Super Bowl. However, for as much fun as it is to watch Robbie use her cleavage to distract some obvious college fraternity types, lifting one guy’s watch and covertly dropping it into the hands of another member of the con team swooping by with perfect timing, you might find it also kind of unintentionally funny, “So, they’re basically just glorified pick-pockets? That’s Will Smith’s big con operation?”
That’s where the unsettling part comes in. They’re not just pick-pockets; they’re identity thieves. A second faction of Will Smith’s team, none of whom have any actual audible lines at any point in the film, takes all of the stolen credit cards and purchases items online which are then sold through E-Bay-like sites. The film absolves any of the characters of any kind of moral wrongdoing by having Smith toss off a line at one point about how they’re mostly robbing guys who were in town to cheat on their wives. So, basically, screw those bastards. This is a pretty big departure from the Oceans 11 films where the target was usually a casino run by a somewhat villainous Andy Garcia/Al Pacino. Focus doesn’t get around to having our noble con artists simply stealing from someone who seems to really deserve it until its second half. In its first half, they’re having a lot of fun with identity theft, which can be difficult to go along with or sympathize with anyone responsible for it because if you’ve ever been a victim of identity theft in real life you know there is absolutely nothing fun about it.
3. It’s a romantic drama first, a con movie second, and it’s oddly self-serious
Focus so clearly and desperately wants to be the best thing to happen to the con movie since Oceans 11, but imagine if Oceans 11 had spent way more time focusing on George Clooney and Julia Roberts’ relationship and less on the casino heist. That’s pretty much what Focus does, with Smith’s character falling in love with Robbie’s character astonishingly fast. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. You just need to adjust your expectations because if you think you’re getting a heist movie you’ll be disappointed. You also need to expect them to take all of it surprisingly seriously, with very, very few moments for Smith’s signature charm. This was intentional, as he explained in a recent interview, “I think I’m coming into a different time in my career. I’ve been the goofy kid growing up. I always enjoyed the comedic aspect of relating to women and even on camera it was always the funny take on it. This is the first time in my career that the role was steamy, full-on man-ness. It’s an uncomfortable space for me. The natural instinct is when the moment is serious, that is the prefect time for the joke. To be constantly pulling away from that and living in the seriousness and sexiness of a moment was a little uncomfortable for me.”
4. The movie is rarely smarter than you are just as Margot Robbie is never smarter than Will Smith
You want a con movie – or in this case a con movie with a lot of romantic drama – to surprise you. You want to see charismatic yet flawed individuals pulling off some crazy heist, and you want to not have figured out how they did it until the explanation finally arrives at the end. The two most important things are that you don’t see the twists coming, and at least in the moment that you get the explanation it totally works for you. Now, as soon as the movie is over and you’re walking out of the theater (or away from your TV) you might give into the inevitable, “Wait a minute…” nitpicking, noticing potential plot holes the film either did not or simply papered over. And then you might find yourself watching that same movie to pick up all the things you might have missed.
The problem with Focus is that its eventual explanation for its two cons, one at the halfway point and the other at the end, don’t totally work in the moment. You don’t instantly marvel at Will Smith’s cleverness. Instead, you realize how kind of goofy the explanation was, instantly questioning how well it actually hangs together, and chastising the movie for continually marginalizing Margot Robbie. Yes, she is an undeniably sexy woman, her laugh lights up a room, and you forget everything you were thinking as soon as you see her because staring at her is like staring into the sun. Blah, blah, blah. Hot, brassy blonde. We get it, but her character is used as an almost literal-prop on more than one occasion. That she manages to be so likable is a testament to Robbie’s abilities. She was clearly capable of giving this movie more than it asked of her. As NPR’s Monkey See put it:
I found myself waiting and waiting for a victory for Jess. Spoiler alert: it never came. I wanted her to show her mettle, to turn out to be smarter than Nicky (who consistently condescends to her) gives her credit for, and to be the best kind of dame in a fizzy romantic caper movie — the equal partner who may not look like one on the surface and who lives to be underestimated and then make you pay for it.
You wait for that to happen partially because that’s how it’s been done in other movies, like Maverick, but also because Robbie manages to make Jess so surprisingly likable that seeing her marginalized is all the more upsetting.
5. Some of the best dramatic moments as well as most regrettable bits of dialogue turn out to be in service to the con
Focus may not have a single honest emotional moment from Will Smith’s character because his every dramatic moment could be said to be all part of his master plan, although a moment of true honesty is surely there a couple of times. Similarly, multiple times characters speak in such extreme clichés you find yourself rolling your eyes only to later learn they were actually playing up the con of the moment. Those two elements combine to mean that what might seem like strengths turn out to be kind of hollow and apparent weaknesses are intentional.
Ultimately, Focus is a classic example of an airplane/lazy Sunday afternoon “let’s see what’s on TV” movie in that if you encounter it when you’re not expecting something amazing you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much charm it has on display. Otherwise, you might find yourself lamenting that there was a really great movie just dying to break out. Instead, we got Focus.