By Preston Wilder
Nicky (Will Smith) has it all figured out. “Get their focus,” he instructs Jess (Margot Robbie), “take whatever you want”. Holding their attention is key, for a thief; “I touch you here, I steal from here”. Films work the same way – though not exactly the same. Take, for instance, Focus, which does hold the attention. It’s a slick, supple comedy-drama about cons and con-artists, part of a long tradition from The Sting to House of Games to Matchstick Men, and it’s very enjoyable – but it doesn’t get all our attention. We know the plot is a distraction, setting up twists to come, and we don’t care enough to care anyway. We don’t let it touch us, let alone steal from us.
This kind of film is wildly difficult to pull off, because it’s essentially asking the audience to be willingly suckered. It only takes 10 minutes for the rug to be pulled out from under our feet – when Jess seduces Nicky, takes him up to her room, a crazed ‘cousin’ shows up toting a gun, and Nicky (far from offering money, or fleeing in a panic leaving his wallet behind) calmly chides the small-timers for getting the trick all wrong. Easy enough to be startled, since we didn’t even know Jess and Nicky were hustlers – but that’s where things get tricky because the audience needs to stay receptive, despite knowing better. Any film that gets in a contest with its audience, or ends up provoking them into a wary ‘won’t get fooled again’ mood, is going to have trouble working.
The usual solution is to put the audience squarely on the side of the con-artists – and Focus works best when it does exactly that, showing Nick and his gang at work in a tourist-infested New Orleans. When I spot a mark (i.e. possible victim) I’ll make a gesture like this, the chief crook tells his cohorts; if the wallet’s in his pants pocket I’ll scratch my nose – unless I use my thumb, in which case I really am scratching my nose. The gang stage noisy arguments and fake heart attacks, just to grab the attention of bystanders – “get their focus” – and distract them long enough to lift their wallet, watch or money-belt. At one point there are two “It’s my husband!” cons – the kind Jess initially tried to pull on Nicky – on the same hotel floor, one mark appearing in the background as the other flees in panic.
This is all great fun, as indeed is most of the movie. Focus is the kind of film you’ll watch on pay-TV a year from now and wonder why it’s so underrated – but it also lacks something, a firm base or (ironically) a focus point. When Nicky turns out to have a gambling problem, making crazy double-or-nothing bets with an Asian millionaire during a big football game, risking – then losing – the $1.2 million which the gang entrusted him with, the sequence is initially thrilling then, as it keeps getting crazier, slightly alienating. It’s increasingly clear that something must be up – but we don’t know if the scam is being perpetrated by Nicky, or Jess (who watches in mounting horror), or even the Asian guy. There’s no weight to the scene; all one can do is wait for the punchline – which, when it comes, is only half-convincing.
Nicky is a Will Smith character, i.e. a superman with a fear of intimacy. It’s the role he’s been playing since Hitch – but it doesn’t really help in this case, adding to the overall air of detachment. Jess, meanwhile, is a thankless role, battered by the various plot twists (compare the superior Duplicity from a few years ago, where the liars played by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts were evenly matched) – and there’s also the inevitable problem that the twists don’t really ‘make sense’, once you try and connect them to what came before. A certain scene in a hotel room between Nicky, Jess and Owens (Gerald McRaney), an old curmudgeon who grumbles about the “lazy-Sunday softness of your generation”, is especially puzzling in this respect, though of course I can Say No More.
Focus is almost terrific, but it doesn’t quite climb to the next level (a common problem this week, also afflicting Black Sea). Some of the jokes are weak – the whole “I’m right here … Still right here” gag desperately needs to be retired – and the bit where a car crash is played from the point of view of a minor character must’ve worked better on the page (onscreen, it feels like a gimmick). But the biggest problem is perhaps that the film walks the tightrope of elaborate con-tricks – prodding the audience to try and second-guess it, so we shed our suspension of disbelief – without the safety net of loveable characters. It needs to be dazzlingly accomplished for this to work, and it isn’t. Still, it holds the attention.
DIRECTED BY Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
STARRING Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Gerald McRaney
US 2015 104 mins