"Focus" Cooks Up A Recipe For Boredom

Ingredients:

2 non-movie stars (1 former movie star, 1 would-be movie star)

Will Smith once carried two original, non-sequel tentpoles – “Independence Day” and “Men In Black” – to a combined $1.5 billion in box office receipts in consecutive summers. Even in the salad days of the mid 1990s, it was an almost unimaginable feat. But almost twenty years later? Smith’s box office brawn has turned to mush.

Somewhere between the dreary melodrama of “Seven Pounds, the bait-and-switch superhero-isms behind “Hancock,” and the wooden sci-fi of “After Earth,” audiences turned their back. They had to. The actor’s choices had become as stale as his onscreen persona – he turned down the title role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” for reasons beyond reason – and consumers eventually caught on.

Meanwhile, a different kind of byproduct of the Hollywood star-making machine was emerging. Australian actress Margot Robbie parlayed a very naked, very overvalued performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf Of Wall Street” into being crowned “the next big thing.”

1 uninspired, accidental pairing

Someone had the bright idea to match these two not-really-movie stars in a not-really-caper, but not before losing out on a bigger draw (Robbie stepped in after Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame wisely bowed out). Casting Smith and Robbie set in stone what “Focus” would become – a project vacuum-packed free of charm and charisma, its stars as well-matched as a balloon and a cactus.

1 bland set-up

Smith plays Nicky, a low-level con man who overseers an army of pickpockets. Why such a savvy, motivated individual would flout bigger fish for low-hanging fruit is a mystery – especially in a work of fiction by writers whose job it is to make their characters interesting – but Nicky’s life path is the least of the film’s plausibility issues.

Robbie co-stars as Jess, a wide-eyed wannabe swindler who – of course – meets Nicky at random. As he reluctantly shows her the tricks of the trade – mostly unimpressive sleight of hand tricks – we know where the film must go. Romance, betrayal, more romance, more betrayal. This is exactly what happens.

20 minutes of untethered stupidity

It’s a pleasant surprise then, that the second act of “Focus” is so dumb as to almost save the film from itself. As our leads engage a high-profile gambler (BD Wong, “Jurassic Park”) in prop bets during a not-really-Super-Bowl (NFL licenses weren’t secured so fictional teams are used, awkwardly), the stakes are raised higher and higher until Nicky’s actions make so little sense that a twist becomes inevitable. But as explained, the twist makes even less sense than the build-up, resulting in some of the silliest expository dialogue ever put to film.

It’s hard to tell if writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) intended for the sequence to be clever, moronic, or if they didn’t care at all, but it’s a bit of manic nonsense that’s preferable to the dull con artistry that bookends it.

Bad dialogue as needed

Nicky drops lines “I like boobs” without irony, characters talk endlessly about being in “the game” as if to lend legitimacy to their line of work, and characters mark the passage of time with such gems as “It’s been a long time.”

But these lyrical accoutrements are no match for the chauvinistic ramblings of the pic’s ostensible comic relief (Adrian Martinez, “Casa De Mi Padre”) or the dialogue that Gerald McRaney (Netflix’s “House Of Cards”) is on hand to shout. The leads are bland enough, but the unimaginative wordplay given to the supporting cast really highlights the cracks in the screenplay. Not even BD Wong’s insane, spirited performance can overcome such leaden dialogue.

1 unearned finale

The pic’s twist ending is set up early on, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable. Yet, it hardly matters. By the 90 minute mark, viewers will either be with “Focus” – eager to lap up the nonsense it’s peddling – or they won’t.

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional brainless movie, but requiring brainlessness on the part of viewers? It’s a frightening notion that “Focus” is all too ready to entertain.

Directions:

Don’t watch.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: February 27, 2015
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screenwriter: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, BD Wong, Adrian Martinez
MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexual content and brief violence)