It’s an interesting challenge blending together the classic con movie formula with the regular rom-com. If you lean too heavily on the criminal side then the romance doesn’t work and at best it becomes a subplot of the larger film. But then again it would be easy to push the other way and make the film too much a romance and undercut the thrills of the con-movie. Happily though I can say that one of the few things which Focus gets completely right is the balance between one side and the other. Now that’s not to say that the romance always works, nor is it to say that the con side isn’t laughably ridiculous at times, but it does at least find a working relationship between its different elements.
One of the film’s biggest successes is the comedy. There are quite a number of decent laughs here with Margot Robbie demonstrating a strong comedic range that nicely complements her work in The Wolf of Wall Street. The humour isn’t exclusively handed out to our leads however, Adrian Martinez and BD Wong are both given a considerable number of the film’s funniest lines and they both really light up the screen when given the opportunity. Unfortunately though, despite the comedy aspect working pretty well, the romance is a little more hit and miss. Robbie and Smith have great chemistry together and that really helps to sell the relationship between the two, but the writing doesn’t often give them enough to work with and thus their characters never truly feel like they are romantically engaged from the start.
What complicates matters here is that the film’s depiction of the characters’ romance gets all mixed up in the film’s con side and unfortunately that aspect is pretty choppy. There are a couple of highlights here which are suggestive of a better controlled and thought out film such as a slickly shot street scene where Robbie tests out her pick-pocketing powers, and also a highstakes and high risk betting match which generates more tension and interest than the rest of the film put together. On the negative side though we have a really big problem, namely that several key cons have ludicrous explanations. I’m perfectly happy to swallow some slight fabrications and silly ideas in service of an exciting movie experience, but I don’t like to have my intelligence insulted by concepts as ridiculous as the ones Focus throws at us. In some respects it’s quite easy to write a con movie; just give us some genuinely well thought-out tricks to relish in and we will lap them up. In my experience audiences prefer to have their brains stimulated a little rather than be given unimaginative nonsense. Unless of course we are talking about Inception where Nolan successfully gave us nonsense that somehow still managed to give our minds a workout too.
It’s a shame that Focus isn’t better. Its two leads are both very capable and it’s good to see Smith mining his easygoing likeability again, just as it is good to see Robbie’s star soaring ever higher. It’s just a pity that the film couldn’t have come together for them in a more wholesome and intelligent way. The laughs are good, but we are never truly sold on the romance and the cons are too often poorly thought out to have any real impact. Still, if you switch your mind off with the cinema lights then you’ll find there are far worse ways to spend 90 odd minutes. It’s a stylish and rather good-looking movie, but not much is going on beneath all of the pretty lights and attractive faces.
What is the film’s greatest strength? The comedy works pretty well.
Its greatest weakness? It played us for fools with laughable cons and we weren’t buying.
Would I see it again? No, the flaws will only be more apparent next time around.
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