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There’s a scene in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s crime caper Focus when the characters stage a heart-attack at a restaurant. The criminals, who revel in the art of distraction, call for a doctor – only for an elderly man to dutifully oblige. While he’s tending to the person lying on the ground and pretending to be in a state of discomfort, the actor’s accomplices subtly steal the belongings of those no longer focusing on their dinner; including a watch that belongs to the very doctor helping out. Ladies and gentlemen, these reprehensible criminals are our protagonists – those we’re supposed to root for and invest in. Good luck with that.

When Nicky (Will Smith) is dining alone, the head of an underground operation of thieves is approached by the beguiling Jess (Margot Robbie) who attempts to seduce her victim and steal his belongings when upstairs in a hotel room. However little does she know she’s dealing with the very master of petty crimes – and though failing in her mission, Nicky sees enough about her to give her the opportunity of working for him. Though pleased with her progress, what he doesn’t account for, is what happens as he begins to develop feelings for her…

Though Focus has a sharp, witty screenplay and the leading duo share an undeniable chemistry – they’re just impossible to get behind, which detracts from the enjoyment of the piece. To have protagonists who partake in this vocation is not always a bad thing – take Goodfellas, or Casino – these characters can be nasty pieces of work, but we can’t help but like them, and fall for their charm. But in those cases, the victims are other gangsters, people who also mix in that world. Whereas in Focus, we’re the victim – regular people going about our everyday life, only to have someone steal something valuable from us. It makes for a film that’s difficult to connect with, especially since the atmosphere and tone points towards a feature that is vying for our support, as though we’re supposed to find these ill-natured characters endearing and charming – but it’s impossible.

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The only entertaining aspect is how little we can trust them, which adds to the frivolity of the piece and taps into the viewer’s own insecurity. They’re all double crossing each other and show so few signs of sincerity. It makes for a wildly ambiguous piece, as we’re put in the same shoes as those being conned, which is playfully elusive in its approach. In that regards, it bears similarities to Now You See Me – and while the latter is now in line for a sequel, you can’t help but hope that a similar fate does not befall those involved in Focus.

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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