By James Kenney (modified from original publication for Queens Free Press)
“Maybe it’s the roofie talking, but this is really fun.”
If that “clever” dialogue doesn’t bring back fond memories of The Thomas Crown Affair, To Catch a Thief, The Sting, or the indelible Charade, you may find yourself, like me, perhaps unnecessarily hostile towards the minor, mildly engaging Focus, the slick but empty new Long-Con entertainment from Will Smith, who has been riding on the coattails of bygone triumphs for a fairly uneventful half-decade. His usually spontaneous cool here slips a bit into uneasy insouciance, feeling strangely heavy and half-medicated, just reminding us how difficult McQueen’s stylishly indifferent act was to pull off a near-half century ago.
“You’re not a serial killer, are you?” She says.
“That depends. How many times does it take to get to ‘serial’?” He coolly replies.
“Five?” she answers nervously.
“Oh, we’re good” he tosses off with a wink.
Well, I imagine I could picture Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn tossing off this exchange, or at least Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in How To Steal a Million, but the effort here to be effortlessly charming is sweat-drenched, the film’s hamstrings stretched to the point of shredding. The whole film is an exercise in outcome engineering; it never once feels anything other than rehearsed, and the manipulation isn’t particularly agreeable. The classic soul and rock tracks (and the sleek modern appropriations) peppering the soundtrack naturally hit a groove the movie itself never quite achieves.
Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie, indeed extraordinary to look at, and the gorgeous Mr. Smith nevertheless lack chemistry. At moments the film seems to be looking for the grace and charm of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez’s guarded flirtations in Out of Sight, but the romantic-but-reticent chemistry came a lot more naturally to Clooney and Lopez, and too much of Focus’ handsome photography is calculated and self-conscious. Don’t have Robbie stand on a balcony staring meaningfully into the New Orleans’ night; have a horse-drawn carriage clopping artfully by below as she sighs meaningfully.
Focus feels too corporate for the film itself to have any fellow-feeling for the characters, who are ostensibly nomads living on the outskirts of society and only swooping in to feed off of it. The way Will Smith’s character discusses “The Big Game” while carefully never mentioning the world “Super Bowl” because of the NFL’s beastly trademarking feels wholly inauthentic, and the extreme product placement (“How Many Hyatt’s did you have to look in to find me?” “Five.”) might make for a lively drinking game but doesn’t bring back memories of Grant and Hepburn, or even Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine in Gambit.
Scenes dribble out without tension because we know we’re not watching anything “real”; like the recent Duplicity, the film is a bit too in love with its own cleverness to remember to let us in on the joke. Watching Smith betting and losing big on the Superbowl, err, “The Big Game,” with a wealthy, arrogant Asian businessman doesn’t delight because we know we are watching a superficial set-up for some wholly farfetched reveal that will disaffirm what came before.
That being said, there is indeed a long tradition of slick, pretty films featuring glamorous thieves and seductive women, and Smith and Robbie heave and grunt their way into the canon. Audiences generally enjoy the larceny-minded, if they’re amiable and attractive, plying their trade on wealthy and deserving dupes, and it takes a lot to make me truly detest a film like Focus. Lots of talented people spend two hours and lots of money in Focus spinning their wobbly plates of manipulation, however. The film has no life outside of these constantly spinning plates, and the manipulation and control is finally oppressive rather than exhilarating. Writer-directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa aren’t story tellers here, they’re salesmen, and it’s not human material they’re selling, it’s polyethylene; very lightweight but rather rigid.