Nicky might be a con-man, but at least he's an ambitious con-man. He would never be happy duping a grandmother out of her prescription money, not when he could be outwitting an Asian billionaire out of millions of dollars at the Superbowl, or hustling a snotty European guy for the secret software that helps his Formula One team win at the race track. And here's the funny thing: Nicky somehow manages to pull off his every scheme, even when those schemes are really complicated and risky, and he never seems to get caught. not even when his enemies seem to have him dead to rights.
Actually, Nicky is so ambitious and so talented that it doesn't make any sense for him to be a con-man. I mean, why would such a smart man pick a career path where jail was a constant threat or where he could be shot at any moment? Nicky has such a gift for human psychology that he could easily get a high paying gig as a casino designer. He's got such a knack for getting people to believe what he wants them to believe that he could easily be a motivational speaker. Hell, I'll say it even though it is obvious: why wouldn't he want to wander into legalized robbery by working on Wall Street? He's immoral and he clearly understands how to schmooze rich people so it seems like he'd be a natural fit at a brokerage firm.
Of course the answer is plain as day: it is because Focus is a movie, and movies are more fun when they are about sexy crimes then when they are about boring crimes. Sure, Nicky's software scam is just as complicated as a derivative swap, but derivative swaps don't seem dangerous. When you see Nicky try to steal from a beady eyed man with big-ass bodyguards you have to think about the beating he'll receive if he gets caught, but if you saw him steal from those same people using a shady stock trade there would be no suspense - you could safely assume that he was going to get away with it because these days greedy bankers always get away with it. At this point we all know that there are two different layers of justice in America, and unfortunately for Nicky, Focus wants him to pursue the one that still gets prosecuted so that his story will still have a little bit of tension in it.
I am admittedly overthinking this, because Focus is not a movie about America's crumbling judicial infrastructure. No, it is a movie about sexy people being charming in dangerous situations. (Or is it charming people being sexy in dangerous situations? Regardless: the situations are dangerous.) Focus might not be mind-blowing, but I can't deny that it is good at being a pop thriller. Never let it be said that Will Smith (who plays Nicky) is not charming, or that Margot Robbie (who plays his love interest Jess) isn't sexy. I'm just saying that the whole time I was watching Focus I kept asking myself: why would these people be doing this?
The problem lies with Focus' oversize scale. Most hustler movies are about little fish who get their chance at a big score, and their risky decisions make sense in that context. If you've been nickle and dimed your whole life wouldn't you jump at the chance to become a millionaire even if it meant risking your neck? The problem is that Nicky is just too successful for his scams to make sense. For example, look at his Superbowl scheme: he spent the run up to the Superbowl stealing two million dollars from tourists who weren't watching their wallets closely enough. That seems like a pretty good haul for a weeks work to me, but not to Nick. No, Nicky wanted to use his sack of cash as an ante in a super-risky bet with that Asian billionaire. But why? If you've already gotten away with two million why push your luck to get ten? It's all tax free anyway, and there's probably going to be another Superbowl next year.
Again, I know I'm overthinking it. Con-man movies aren't made to be sliced up with logic. They always require too many magic coincidences, too many lucky breaks, too many double-crosses, and once you start trying to diagram their comings and goings they change from being fun trifles to hassles. I get that shutting off my mind for a minute would help me enjoy this movie about dangerous people being sexy in charming situations a lot more. (I think I might have gotten it turned around that time, but I can't be sure because I had already turned my mind off.) However, the truth is that Focus just doesn't quite cut it, because even on my most lenient day this movie would require 10% more suspension of disbelief than I'm willing to give.
Of course, this leads us towards a deep irony because the less you pay attention to Focus the more you will like it. If you try to stay one step ahead of every bit of sleight of hand all you'll get is a headache and a tinge of Wall Street related sadness, but if it is something that you are just half-watching from the other room you'll probably love it. Nicky might be a great con-man, but he'll never be as good as Will Smith, because naming a move that absolutely can't be scrutinized "Focus" is a next level bait and switch.