Focus is a pretty meta film. Like the characters, it walks a very thin line. It’s never clear what it wants. It’s always on the verge of either fucking up big time or a major success. The end result is similar to the character’s end. They haven’t hit the bottom, but it looks pretty bad compared to the peaks.
The beginning is promising. Nicky (Will Smith) seems desperate to try to prove to us how cool he is, but the filmmakers know the life of crime isn’t that glamorous. Jess (Margot Elise) shows the humanity of her character so much that her good looks move to the back.
The traits of the characters drive the story. It may be about con artists and big money schemes, but the twists and turns aren’t as prominent as the characters’ reactions and relationships. Nicky is a jaded, borderline nihilistic person who cons only because he got nothing else to. Jess is a woman so excited by the thrill of theft that she could easily lose herself. There are a few key scenes which focus on schemes and whether or not they’ll fail. The intensity comes not from just wondering what the outcome will be, but how it will affect the characters.
The film doesn’t always go in that direction though. The most powerful scene is ruined by a monologue desperately trying to convince how cool Nicky is. It’s just a string of events less probable than Elvis Presley landing with his alien friends. They also fail at the climax. Instead of putting the characters face to face with being, for a change, out of control it hands it back to them at the last minute. It may be a clever twist, but it’s a cop out that prevents us from getting close to the characters.
There’s also a terrible, Tarantino-inspired soundtrack full of songs that tell you how cool these characters are because they’re, y’know, big time criminals in a film. The characters are in a constant state of paranoia and fear. They’re not glamorous criminals who smoke a cigar and suddenly their enemies die. Focus shows us the humanity of these people. The soundtrack wants to drown it out.
The soundtrack, coupled with the conclusions to a few great scenes try to negate this. It may seem clever to put such songs in what’s a pretty paranoid film, but this ‘contrast’ has been run to the ground. We get it. The soundtrack doesn’t match the emotions the character feel. When does this cliche keeps appearing because filmmakers are just awful at music? There isn’t an obvious antidote to this. It’s not like half the soundtrack is Front Line Assembly and Nine Inch Nails track. That would’ve made a bipolar soundtrack that expresses exactly how the characters feel. With nothing to contrast the coolness, the soundtrack is there just to drown out the humanity.
The attempts at making this another glamorization of criminals only prevents it from being a great film. The climax is less of a cop out than they hinted, and Smith’s and Elise’s great performances are enough to push the crappy soundtrack in the back. It’s not a brilliant film, but these are 104 entertaining minutes that show you that you don’t have to dumb down in order to make a fun, satisfying film.
3 stolen watches out of 5