Box Office Democracy: “Focus”
As a movie critic I believe I am obligated by law to review Focus through the lens of what it means for Will Smith’s career: if we have finally reached the end of the dark ages after almost eight years of films that were both critical and financial mixed bags. I might even tell you that we are back at the peak of the mountain we haven’t seen since I Am Legend and that we have our unquestioned biggest movie star in the world returned to us from the exile of After Earth and Men In Black 3. This isn’t that triumphant return; Will Smith is good but not extraordinary in a movie that will never be a blockbuster nor is it a critical darling. Focus is a perfectly serviceable crime movie that feels confined by a lack of ambition and, perhaps, a lack of budget.
It’s hard to classify Focus, because it is honestly unlike any crime movie I’ve ever seen before. It wraps itself in the trapping of a heist movie; it has a ton of lingo and a quick cut editing style that still bears the fingerprints of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven but the stakes feel so consistently lower. The most sustained bit of crime action we get in the film is a pickpocketing ring and while it’s impressive that they walk away from a week’s work with $1.2 million it doesn’t feel like a feat worthy of a movie. The second half is a more impressive score, but none of the crime is on camera as it all takes a back seat to the human drama. Focus is a heist picture that never gets to the heist and there’s an unsatisfying void at the center because of it.
That void should have been filled by the love story between Will Smith’s Nicky and Margot Robbie’s Jess but that never quite gets there either. I am, along with anyone else who has ever thought about film critically, a strong proponent of “show don’t tell” as a movie making rule but if you’ve gotten to the end of the movie and realize you haven’t shown anything about your most important relationship, maybe it’s okay to go in and tell us something. Nicky and Jess are in love simply because they’re the two leads in a movie; they never share anything resembling a tender moment and I suppose I could write it off as them both being damaged by poor upbringings but I don’t want to. It’s lazy to just count on me to be pulled in by the sheer magnetism of the actors even if one of them is Will Smith, the most magnetic man this side of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I needed to be shown these acts of affection these building blocks of a real relationship, because there was so much time dedicated to how good and how constantly these characters lied.
If you don’t consume movie industry trade media you might not know this but there was a lot made of how cheap Focus was to make. After incentives provided by locations and promotional considerations the movie cost only $50 million, which is quite a low number for a Will Smith movie. I can’t find any reporting on whether or not Smith got his typical $20 million quote for this movie but it does kind of feel like they cut some costs along the way. The directors wanted Emma Stone and had Kristen Stewart committed before signing Robbie to play the female lead and quality concerns aside that progression looks like a cost-saving measure to me. Focus also declines to present anything resembling a real antagonist and it might be cynical to suggest this but I think it’s because they didn’t want to pay anyone who could hold up in a scene opposite Smith so they bring in a parade of television and bit players to kind of loosely perform as a mass of obstacles and it deprives us of any kind of satisfaction in the eventual victories. Deprived of a good heist picture, a credible romantic arc, or a compelling antagonist Focus fails to deliver a compelling movie and instead leaves us with a blurry mess.