Silver Screen: Focus *
The con is on in Focus, an airless, self-satisfied movie about grifters and flim-flam men that’s either a jokeless comedy or a drama without gravity or consequence. It’s sometimes tough to tell what exactly cowriters and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are shooting for, but it’s clear that they’re missing the mark.
A never-more-robotic Will Smith stars as Nicky, a swindler extraordinaire who we first meet during an attempted ripoff by an inferior team of crooks. Blonde bombshell Jess (Margot Robbie) is trying to lure men into her hotel room so her boyfriend can rob them at gunpoint, but Nicky is ahead of the game and thoroughly unintimidated. Jess is impressed with his savvy and asks to be taken under his wing. He involves her in an elaborate series of scams during Super Bowl weekend, but— surprise!— this bunco artist is playing everyone all the time. He leaves Jess in the lurch, which makes it awkward when their paths cross three years later in Buenos Aires as they both scheme to bilk a cocky Formula One racecar driver (Rodrigo Santoro) out of millions.
Sounds like a template for a decent, breezy movie. In fact, it sounds quite a bit like the basic plot for the underappreciated Duplicity, where embattled lovers Clive Owen and Julia Roberts used their mutual romance in a series of overlapping double-crosses to great effect. Both films try to evoke the breezily Hitchcockian machinations of Stanley Donen’s 1963 classic Charade, but only one of them gets it right.
It’s a lot quicker to point out what Focus does well than to catalog its mistakes. An inventively shot sequence of a thug dispatched to kidnap our antihero plays like a nifty little short film within the movie. The great character actor B.D. Wong is just shy of over the top and entirely steals his big scene. Likewise, prolific bit player Adrian Martinez engenders more sympathy as Nicky’s sidekick than either star is able to manage.
Focus’s primary sin is illogical, lazy plotting. Just because the movie is about con men doesn’t mean the filmmakers have license to cheat the audience. Every conflict in the film resolves thusly: Nicky hatches a seemingly way-too-complicated plot, everything appears to go horribly wrong, and then it’s revealed that it was all part of an even more improbably elaborate scheme. Once the directors establish this dunderheaded formula, they drain all the remaining scenes of drama. We just sit and wait to find out how this was Nicky’s plan all along, no matter how stupefyingly outlandish that plan is. The audience never gets to participate in these schemes, but rather the schemes are perpetrated against them right along with the villains. It all leads up to a cheat so blatant and ridiculous it would spoil the movie if the movie could in fact be spoiled.
Ficarra and Requa have already made a great movie about a con man, the woefully underappreciated I Love You Phillip Morris. They’ve also demonstrated their willingness to jerk the audience around with selective misinformation and poorly reverse-engineered surprises in the similarly stupid, self-satisfied Crazy, Stupid, Love, which only earned one word of its title.
Still, Focus could have been a fun trifle— that is, if it had any sense of fun. Instead it vacillates between drooling money-porn and counterfeit David Mamet edginess. The latter is best exemplified by the excellent Gerald McRaney, who seems to think he’s in a far more serious movie. He’s forced to utter knockoff Mamet lines like “I got a little red hair on my taint that tickles when something’s afoot, and lately I’ve been scratching my nethers like a macaque.”
Crazy, Bad, Dialogue.
If Focus does work at all, it’s as the aforementioned money porn: Lots of commercial-grade shots of expensive hotels, expensive clothes, expensive watches, and expensive people. If you’re so desperately empty that something inside you can be filled by simply beholding the trappings of wealth, like pagans going blind gazing upon a sun god that will never deign to touch them, Focus is the movie for you. It’s a live-action Gucci catalogue burdened by stunted repartee. To wit, there is none.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.