“I can convince anyone of anything. I once convinced a man that an empty warehouse was the Federal Reserve. So I’m good.”
Con men and women are such inherently fascinating people, with their outward adherence to a professional code but otherwise subjective morality, with their investment in and facility with appearances belying what one imagines might be a fairly empty soul beneath. I welcome any chance I can get to learn more about this mindset, this appealing, alien lifestyle, which for an ordinary workaday drone like me is really wish fulfillment on a level just below that of “super hero”. Somewhere along the way, though – I’m thinking around the time of David Mamet’s ingenious, insinuating House of Games – movies about con artists stopped so much being character studies, and became little more than overly elaborate twist engines designed to fool the audience first and the protagonist second, if at all. I realize that with such a statement I may be eulogizing a form that actually never existed, but I have, at any rate, noticed that the balance seems to have irretrievably tipped in a direction that just doesn’t particularly appeal to me. The best such movie I’ve seen this century was the 2003 Nicholas Cage vehicle Matchstick Men, wherein a neurotic and highly phobic con man’s big score becomes terribly complicated by the arrival of his heretofore unknown teenage daughter. By comparison, the 2013 Oscar nominated American Hustle offered up an imminently qualified cast and an immensely appealing romantic central couple to the creaky machinery of its less than scintillating government corruption caper, losing touch with its characters in the process. Even when the mixture is more equitable, the “con” aspect usually still gets more play than the “artist”.
Glen Ficarra’s Focus struggles heroically to achieve, or at least approach, the proper balance, and, in its broad strokes, presents the very model of what a confidence movie should aspire to. In truth, however, the film only really ever functions highly on that aspirational level – think luxury suite living and impulsive, multi-million dollar wagers on the ephemera of a football championship, champagne toasts at impossibly exclusive parties, moonlit assignations at exotic, impossibly posh hotels – and, though broad strokes are absolutely necessary to the effective setting of any scene, any con man worth his salt will tell you the details are invariably what matter. If we, the audience, are the ones being conned just as much as anybody appearing on screen, then the details are what will suck us in and make us believe. Focus even nails those details, up to an early point, before deciding, nay, declaring, that even the most daring, impressive, icy-veined confidence man in the world has room on his exceedingly crowded plate for love. Focus wants to have things both ways at almost all times, involving its audience waist deep in the private lives and romantic travails of its gorgeous lead rogues while simultaneously changing (or leveling, or strip-mining, or dynamiting) the playing field every fifteen minutes or so. It’s a shame Ficarra and co-writer John Requa don’t quite have the guts to follow down the rabbit hole the question of what a charming, ultra-successful professional liar might sacrifice in the name of love, contenting themselves instead with merely posing the question at all.
From the first trailer I saw, I found myself attracted to Focus on a surface level, and, even as it looked every bit the part of the bland, standard Hollywood weekend-winner I instinctively avoid, plowed ahead, hoping that it had steak enough to match the sizzle I’d already been offered. Its opening thirty minutes, as I alluded to, are actually quite good. We’re introduced to Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) as he eats conspicuous dinner for one at a trendy ski resort restaurant. Stepping out of many a man’s dream to spontaneously sit at his table is Margot Robbie’s Jess, a beautiful, blonde huckster ostensibly ducking out on an abusive husband. Nicky and Jess are instantly attracted to one another. They talk and flirt (“Maybe it’s these roofies talking,” she says, “but I’m having a really good time.”), then take matters upstairs. No sooner are they in bed than the door is broken in by Jess’ significant other, incensed at her betrayal and brandishing a pistol at a strangely placid and immediately unimpressed Nicky. Both he and the audience know this kind of shakedown scam when they see it, and what begins as Nicky defusing the potentially deadly “meet cute” situation via reverse psychology (“You’d be doing me a favor by shooting me.”) evolves into a thorough and embarrassing dissertation on the many flaws (“You should’ve waited until the pants were off.”) in their attempted con. Jess pursues Nicky out of the hotel like an excited puppy, eager for further tutelage, and the ensuing scene, wherein Smith demonstrates the benefits of “focus” for superior pickpocketry before leaving, smoothly discussing conceptual matters and holding her rapt attention while he quickly and repeatedly steals the rings off her finger, the watch off her wrist, and even her purse, is a slight but masterful sequence. For whatever flaws one might find in Smith as an actor, the man is pretty much charisma personified. Jess’ estimation of him is neatly, instantly, transferred to the audience. For much of the remaining film, we’ll see a constantly shifting landscape through her eyes.
From here, the two part ways and the action shifts to New Orleans during the weeklong lead up to a championship football game that, despite appearances, is, for pesky legal reasons, most definitely not the Super Bowl. Nicky’s team of scammers, pickpockets, lookouts and fences, itself practically a 53-man roster, is preparing for the larcenous week ahead when he is surprised by the reappearance of Jess, who has been tracking him cross country from one high profile hotel to the next in hopes of impressing him enough to accept her on as an apprentice. The extended sequence that follows, as Nicky and his various right hand men deploy Jess as a heat-seeking, multi-purpose distraction behind which they can fleece the public at will – the film boasts a “con artist consultant/pickpocket designer” in its closing credits – is a real treat, taking a handful of pages from the unmatched early passages of Martin Scorsese’s Casino in its thorough description, demonstration, and deconstruction of exactly how many wildly different ways the gang makes, and later compounds and redirects, its money. Jess’ growing confidence as a naturally gifted (in tenacity and pickpocketing skills, in addition to swoon-worthy looks*) working “intern” is mirrored by her new boss, who apparently can’t believe his good fortune, and has apparently also taken a sudden and intense sexual shine to his protégé, for the plausible complementary reasons of “I’m Will Smith” and “who the heck wouldn’t?” I used the word “apparently” above advisedly, however, because once Nicky and Jess’ futures and bodies are fully intertwined, Focus rarely misses an opportunity to inject doubt into their equation, to the point that it eventually risks poisoning the narrative altogether, and leaves audience members – who, remember, are ideally being sold a convincing alternate reality here – restless and increasingly dubious, even with the benefit of occasional three-year jumps in the action to act as a buffer.
*Not to single myself out for minority status here, but I, for one, would be very interested in how Robbie is growing into the iconic look of Harley Quinn as DC’s upcoming “Suicide Squad” film begins production. Instead, we’ve gotten a heaping helping of Oscar-winning former hippie Jared Leto’s higher profile transformation into The Joker, the most recent pic of which found him looking, shirtless, wild-eyed, conspicuously over-tattooed and wearing a stainless steel grill, like the default male character in a hastily assembled Hot Topic fashion simulator. Seriously, refine this.
After a harrowing, (and, technically, rather well-realized) high stakes gambling encounter in a luxury box at the not-Super Bowl, Nicky and Jess part company on difficult terms, only to resurface by convenient coincidence some years later in Buenos Aires, Argentina, an exotic mecca nestled in the bosom of big money Formula-One racing. Each is engaged in dealings with the same arrogant, slap-worthy F-1 car owner – Nicky as his partner in con, Jess as his arm candy. Nicky hatches a plot with his new benefactor to pose as a disgruntled team engineer and sell the Argentinian’s fabled fuel additive, a legal in-house supplement that legitimately boosts engine performance just enough to be unbeatable, to his fiercest rival. The info to be provided will be fake but highly persuasive, and Nicky will skip town with the rival’s millions paid for a worthless formula while the owner smugly wins the race. It’s difficult to see the Argentinian’s scheme as anything worth half the trouble of hiring an outside contractor of such quality, but, nevertheless, Jess’ surprise appearance completely diverts Nicky’s focus in the short term and produces a symbolic wrench primed for introduction into his long term plans. Suddenly, amazingly, the memories rush back, lingering regrets resurface, and he is pining. I mean, apparently. This development, of course, proves problematic for the con man, for the treasured quality that allows him to run his game, and for the movie whose title bears its name.
Smith remains a case study in the serious lengths to which effusive charm and physical presence can carry an actor, and, as actors, both Smith and Nicky sell hard, if not all that gracefully, when called upon. They’re granted a trio of agreeable, suitably eccentric adversaries to tweak and be tweaked by, including former Law & Order: Sport Utility Vehicle psychiatrist B.D. Wong, chewing scenery as the overenthusiastic gambling “whale” Nicky tangles with during the not-Super Bowl, and former Major Dad Gerald McRaney, chewing nails as the Formula-One debutante’s hard assed and antagonistic head of security. Everyone here is a “type”, which actually makes Jess the most recognizable human in the movie, give or take Nicky’s portly, vivacious computer expert (a winning Adrian Martinez). Robbie imbues her with a range of alternating bewitchery and bewilderment that is a full step up or more from the petulant trophy wife she played in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Jess weathers bouts of overconfidence and is not above lavishing undue attention on Nicky just to demonstrate how her confidence skills have grown, but at times she is also convincingly, and touchingly, vulnerable. This whiplash particulars of their evolving relationship would give anyone pause. Time and again, Nicky’s bona fides as a stone cold player who has every angle covered are not just established, or underlined, but cast in bronze and put in a ballistic glass case for public display. The idea that he would fall so hard, or could, even for a siren of Jess’ pedigree, strains credibility. Smith and the filmmakers go to pains to prove otherwise, which even works somewhat, or at least up to the next/latest point at which they decide snatch the rug out and the cycle begins anew.
Focus never quite falls apart once the Argentinian gambit is underway, but it also never steps with near the confidence it needs to, and, occasionally, stumbles badly. Every mistake the script makes is typically over-corrected soon after, resulting in a sort of lurching, disjointed muddle, however pretty. On a positive note, Ficarra’s direction is professional and unobtrusive, relaying to the viewer both the breezy exterior and sensuous rush of the jet set life – the F-1 track, the A-list party – plus the underlying tension that is part and parcel to any criminal lifestyle, but especially one as lush and decadent as Nicky’s. Ficarra and Requa also admirably seek to dig a bit beneath the surface…or is that itself a trick? If so, it’s the film’s most successful one. Focus clearly aspires to play the game a certain way, but lacks the will, as an enterprise beholden to the conventions of the modern con man movie, to ever let its leads fully overtake its twists. Nor does it help either that the later twists kind of stink. We believed fully and immediately that Nicky was a world class con man. I just never particularly believed he was in love, which is a big deal since that is the axis on which his personal growth and any (limited) redemptive potential turn. It’s a shame to watch the movie squander a head-turning cast and a strong, promising beginning through equivocation and timidity. Matchstick Men crawled so fearlessly into the Cage character’s head, offering up the tantalizing possibility of a new, purer, saner life as an ex-con father, that when the climactic switcheroo inevitably came, it took both audience and artist by almost complete surprise, seen, as it was, through the eyes of a very different protagonist than the one that started the movie. Nicky ends Focus in far worse physical shape than does Cage’s recalibrated matchstick man, but, even then, the film holds him at a calculated distance, having done far too little to earn him a final transcendent moment, yet still strangely interested in approximating one. I mean, apparently.
“Focus” (2015) 2/4 stars