Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, BD Wong, Robert Taylor
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexual content and brief violence)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 2/27/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 26, 2015
The plot of Focus doesn't twist and turn. It comes to a full stop, pauses to consider its options, and then proceeds to slowly and awkwardly make a sharp turn. It's a movie that wants us to make sure we completely understand all of the lies and manipulations performed by its characters so that, in the aftermath, we can grasp the workings of everything that came before the final reveals. The movie doesn't make us appreciate the process of the con. Its aim is to surprise and to make us admire how clever the movie's own deceptions are.
The distinction is important. The fun of watching a con unfold is in feeling as if we are a witness to its mechanics. The screenplay by directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa understands this in the movie's first act, which follows Nicky (Will Smith) as he teaches the ropes to a promising amateur named Jess (Margot Robbie). She tries to rob him by seducing him and staging a confrontation with a "cuckolded husband."
It's a scheme Nicky knows all too well. Jess realizes she has been outplayed. Nicky offers his first lesson to her: "Die by the lie."
What follows their initial confrontation is a tour through an elaborate system of pickpocketing, purse-snatching, wallet-grabbing, identity theft, and, of course, the old "my husband caught us trying to have sex and is going to kill you unless you leave" trick. Nicky explains the specifics—how to distract a mark, take what you want, and leave him or her none the wiser. The con artist must always be in control and maintain a sense of hyper-awareness.
We see Nicky's team on a street in New Orleans, working like a finely tuned and well-oiled machine, as one person taps someone's shoulder or some such diversion, another grabs a watch or something else of value, and the item is passed around from one thief to another. Even if the target could make the connection between the beautiful woman asking for directions and the disappearance of his wallet, the wallet was already three or four people removed from her by the time she's finished with the distraction.
Now imagine that seconds-long theft and multiply it by a team of dozens of master cons working around the clock for a few days before a big game in the city. This is fun stuff, because Ficarra and Requa show us the particulars of how it works. Then we get to see it working.
It also helps that Smith turns on his charms to make this world appealing and that Robbie offers a spark of playful intelligence to complement her sex appeal. We know Nicky is going to be a step or two ahead of everyone else in the room, but Robbie plays Jess in such a way that we start to wonder if she's keeping up with him or even a few steps ahead of him. That's just to point out a quality of the performance, not to suggest anything about the plot. It's actually disappointing how uncharacteristically powerless Jess becomes at key points.
The New Orleans scenes climax in a showdown between Nicky and an enthusiastic gambler (played by an amusingly off-kilter BD Wong) who seems to have tapped into one of Nicky's demons. Whether or not those demons exist is something upon which the movie can't quite decide.
In a way, we can only judge a movie con artist by the games he or she plays—how far he or she will take the scam, who he or she is willing to hurt in the process, and who is spared. That's another reason an understanding of the procedure is vital. It's not just a matter of plot. It's also a matter of character.
We get some of Nicky's back story through stories of his father (who shot Nicky's grandfather in a last-ditch gamble to prove his loyalty to a mark) and a hint from his second-in-command (a drolly matter-of-fact Robert Taylor) that Nicky has a gambling problem. The payoff to the scene with the gambler puts the second part into question, which, of course, makes us wonder about the rest of it, too (The conclusion of the scene reveals a plan that's so elaborately imprecise that we start to have doubts about the movie's games, too).
The story picks up three years after the New Orleans job. Nicky is in Buenos Aires, taking a job with a racing team's owner (Rodrigo Santoro). He wants to trick the opposing team, giving his driver a slight edge in an upcoming race. The owner's head of security (a gristly Gerald McRaney) doesn't trust Nicky, and when Jess shows up again, Nicky seems unable to trust himself.
Can we trust any of them, though? That's the question that's always in the forefront of our mind while watching the second half of the movie. Everything seems too pat, too clean, and too easy. We know the veil will fall, the other shoe will drop, the floor will disappear, or whatever cliché one finds appropriate here. The question is whether the characters are playing each other or the movie is playing us. The first option is a fair game; the second is not. In the end, we get the sense that Focus is rigged against us.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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