Dynamic directing duo struggles with high expectations, ‘Focus’ doesn’t cut it

Like Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s last film as directors, 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” their 2015 Will Smith-starring “Focus” begins with dinner at an uptown restaurant. The previous film fixated on the footwear of the establishment’s patrons in order to characterize their privilege and standing in the movie’s sitcom-ish but nonetheless genuine social strata.

In “Focus,” though, relationships are established through transactions and calculated movements of body and tongue. We don’t hear them, we drift from afar like our seemingly off-the-job hero, but then are thrust into action with the haphazard introduction of a woman .

Though their interaction is by chance, it is imperative that we accept Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) and Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) as having undeniable chemistry, and I don’t. Regardless, “Focus” is about the shifting layers of identity constructed through our jobs, love lives and interpersonal dynamics, but, more than any other of Ficarra and Requa’s almost exclusively-con job films, the revealing of its final hand amounts to nothing.

The film is the summation of paths crossed by the central pair of lovers/competitors through a rotating series of locations: New York City, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, and then back to the United States. The couple’s shady motivations presumably are teased out over the course of the years-long journey.

“Focus” is a serious disappointment to this critic because Ficarra and Requa do consistently good work, be it their screenplay—aided by the Coen brothers—for Terry Zwigoff’s excellent “Bad Santa,” or scripting for Richard Linklater on his undervalued 2005 “Bad News Bears” remake.

The pair came into their own with their directing debut, 2010’s “I Love You Phillip Morris,” which firmly established themes of fakery, embezzlement, and fraud that persist (and precede) that defining work.

“Focus[’s]” plot indeed revolves around professional liars in much the same way as “Phillip Morris,” but the new film doesn’t provide the contextualizing details to link Nicky’s need to fake and steal with intimate or internal access to the multifaceted lead character.

In “Phillip Morris,” the relative naïveté and earnestness of Ewan McGregor’s titular object of affection created a sweet moral conflict between Jim Carrey’s protagonist’s incessant scheming and need for transgression. This sorrowfully links addiction and substance abuse in a manner “Focus” merely gestures to in a scene where Smith mimics alcoholism on the job.

However, because all of Smith’s behaviors are veiled performances angling toward the acquisition of something, the scene registers as a surface-level grappling with a weighty implication.

The directing pair’s new effort also draws comparison to the past, “I Love You Phillip Morris” in a cafe conversation between Jess and Farhad (Adrian Martinez), an associate of Nicky. In the sequence, the woman jokes that she’s now a lesbian and only interested in women, a line that shows the gay themes and queer relationships present in the filmmakers’ 2010 film, which used con-jobs and their perpetuation in one’s life as a metaphor for deceptive identity and cloaked truths of sexual exposure.

“Focus” tosses the subject off, never to bring it up again, thus describing itself as only superficially concerned with the existential dilemmas of love, addiction, and identity which manifest in atmospheric, moody imagery. In several scenes, the directors stylistically overstay their welcome with murky yellow-greenish medium close-ups of Smith as he stews in his regrets and, I inferred, the suffocating anonymity and transience of a life of crime.

It isn’t inhabited by the underlying humanity of “Morris” or “Love,” but the filmmakers’ slick camera coyly turns in and around visual illusions that track one person’s path only to swipe with a pane of glass into an image of another figure altogether. This prismatic aesthetic, along with the shiftiness of the locations inhabited by the characters, evinces a deceptive, deeply human drive to conceal oneself. But Smith and Robbie’s characters are, in addition to con-people, bland cyphers in their own right, bringing very little to the table in terms of backstory or compelling character detail.

They exhume a cold artifice deceit that’s inherent to particularly Smith’s character, whose role necessarily interrogates the actor’s massive celebrity as a charismatic movie star; Nicky is putting on faces and inhabiting roles as much as Smith is in his own real-life artistic pursuits.

In “Focus,” the worlds of con artistry/gambling and athletic competition are likened, suggesting the hollow competition and one-upmanship of both pursuits. Ficarra and Requa don’t go beyond setting up the aesthetic likeness, and as a result, the film’s attempts at making any kind of serious statements about competition and professionalism are cursory at best. While “Focus” doesn’t announce itself as vanity project quite as directly as “After Earth,” “Seven Pounds,” or even “Hancock,” “Focus” is decidedly not a film with the gall to kill its star’s character, but toys with the idea only to uphold his cyclical, immortal reign.

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