Movies about con men are always essentially cons themselves. It’s inevitable, as how can you follow someone gaming the system without trying your best to game the audience? The problem is, as the audience grows more aware of this trick, filmmakers need to work harder to up the ante for their personal version of the “long con” — that is, finding unique and fresh ways to hide their true intentions through misdirection and other types of cinematic slight-of-hand that lead to creating surprising twists that will not not only send the viewer for a loop, but make complete sense. If they fail to do so, the whole concept would fall apart and turn a decent movie into a disappointment faster than you can say Jar-Jar Binks. Good direction and strong performances also go a long way to misleading an audience, and with Focus, emotional strength elevates a weaker than average mind game.
Will Smith is charismatic and confident as Nicky, a third generation con man who, unlike a lot of characters in these types of movies, doesn’t work alone. That is to say, he doesn’t just have a partner or two he can trust to help him in the game. Nicky runs a full-fledged business with dozens of employees, most of whom are masters of distraction and experienced in playing shadow games to pinch money, jewelry and other expensive items from unsuspecting crowds. But whether thief or paperwork drone, each member of the crew is essential to a multimillion dollar business that helps Nicky linger in his own ego. So much so that he has no fear of ever getting caught and suffers with a slight gambling addiction — which is understandable, given that he gambles with his life on a daily basis. That’s all small potatoes, though, compared to the bigger cons that take elaborate setups to pull off, one of which spans the majority of the second half of the film, taking a major detour from the small, tight and better first half.
When we first meet Nicky, he’s eating alone at a restaurant when he’s approached by Jess (Margot Robbie), a stunning blond bombshell who asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend so as to escape a handsy lowlife at the bar. Nicky happily accepts the ruse, eventually escorting her back to her room where her jealous boyfriend breaks up the fun. Of course this is all a scam, and Nicky calls them out, supplying them tips on how to better perform in the future. This intrigues Jess enough to seek Nicky out again to learn the fine craft of thievery and cons from a true expert. In probably the best sequences of the film, Nicky teaches her the basics of lifting. The whole thing is a one well-played, perfectly choreographed dance of misdirection, chemistry and, of course, focus. Both Smith and Robbie radiate attraction as if it were going out of style. This scene sets up the overarching narrative of the film, which is watching a man so dedicated to his craft begin to lose his focus over a girl he has no right to fall for — at least in his own mind. It’s not a bad turn of events for a film like this, however, the way it’s dealt with turns lifeless rather quickly.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa make it a point to keep the relationship between Nicky and Jess the main focus of the film, dropping little hints about where the story may be taking us within the realm of this forbidden passion. But once you’ve prepared an audience for a mind-twisting con, you had better deliver the goods, and Ficarra and Requa fail to do that. The first half of the film is electric and at times disturbing in the way it depicts the subtle ways these criminals steal your money. It spends a lot of time teaching us the ways of the con, and in one superb scene at a football game, combines all the elements together to create a brilliantly crafted sequence where it isn’t clear who is conning who, as Nicky and Jess continually raise the stakes in a gambling war with an Asian business tycoon. Had Ficarra and Requa remained in this pocket, maybe twisting their own con a bit to really hit the main through-line of the film (one involving the nickname Mellow, which Nicky’s father gave him when he was younger) into the stratosphere, they would have created one killer movie. But this scene is also where the film derails.
After Nicky leaves Jess behind (supposedly due to his fear of losing his focus), the film jumps ahead three years for no real reason but to set up events that seem entirely out of place in comparison. Nicky supposedly hasn’t worked much for three years, but is lured back into the game by Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), an international Indy racer who wants Nicky to con his competitors into buying a fake duplicate of a engine modification device that he invented so that he would gain an edge over them. Nicky is ready to fire on all cylinders up until the point he finds out Garriga’s girlfriend is none other than Jess. This is where the mind starts racing, trying to connect this turn of events to the first half of the movie and piece together where the real con lies. Is this just a coincidence of circumstance, or is something much larger at play here? It’s a fun little game to actively seek out the hidden pieces and get a jump on the filmmakers’s ability to fool you in the end, however, by the time we reach the sour climax, none of the original setups pays off, and a couple of the explanations thrown out are flimsy at best.
That isn’t to say the pieces don’t eventually fall into place — they do. But considering all of the mesmerizing potential in the first half of the film, allowing us to pick out several clues that lead up to the big reveal (which I can honestly say, I didn’t see coming), Ficarra and Requa force twist upon twist to the point where I’m not sure they even know where they’re going with it. It’s a good example of how the slightest of tweaks can sour a film with the snap of a character’s motivation and leave us to ponder the irony of a film called Focus somehow managing to lose its very own focus.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Chappie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Unfinished Business. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.