‘I’ ON CULTURE
The lead actor of the new film Focus tells his beautiful costar that the secret to success for them in the con game is focus. By making someone lose focus, you can do what you want to them. Unfortunately, the film suffers from the same problem. It has a wonderful start; the first third of the film is great, and then it loses focus. The quick-moving action that provides enormous fun at the start suddenly slows down, and the movie drags.
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a cool customer when insanely gorgeous Jess (Margot Robbie) tries to pull a con on him. She invites him to her room, where her “husband” bursts in on them with a gun. Nicky calmly points out what they did wrong. Soon after, he recruits Jess as part of his team working New Orleans during a Super Bowl weekend. He specializes in pickpocketing, getting small amounts but using a large team to do it on a wholesale basis. The scenes here are great, if pretty much amoral, fun. Special devices to get credit card information, wholesale pickpocketing by one member of a team, who passes the things off to another member within seconds, move the film along. It is the best part of the action.
We then see Nicky losing money in stupid bets at the game itself, pointing out his weakness. Not surprisingly, he beds Jess. Then he cuts her out of his life, no reason given. The film then moves three years later to Buenos Aires, where Nicky is running a con to get a billionaire racer to replace a key component for his race car. If he uses it, it will guarantee victory for another billionaire. Suddenly, Jess appears as the girlfriend of the mark. At that point, the film becomes more of a romantic story, trying to sort out feelings while the two seem to work at putting one over on each other, and the whole movie slows down considerably.
Smith is good as Nicky. His career has been down of late, but watching him now, he does not look that different from the superstar he was a dozen years ago. But with the exception of Men in Black 3, his recent films have been duds. However, he recaptures his cool here. It is not his fault that the script lets him down.
Robbie, on the other hand, is spectacular. She lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. Even more to the point, her character is far more interesting than Smith’s. As a result, she comes across as far more central to the film than would normally be the case. The supporting cast does a really good job: Adrian Martinez is fun as Nicky’s tech guy, and B.D. Wong has a great scene as a compulsive gambler.
The film has several plot problems. First of all, Nicky is supposed to be so careful that he’s basically obsessive-compulsive, yet he casually gambles away a lot of money betting on random events. Second, his style changes from the first part of the film to the second. He runs a quick turnover operation with wholesale, fairly safe pickings and is presented as an expert at that. Yet in the second part, he’s running a complex, single-focus operation. And his reasons for splitting with Jess after the first part is never clear. She worked well with him and was quite willing to be his lover.
I admit that I often have a prejudice against movies centered on cons. The Sting, probably the best of them, was an operation against a gangster, so the crooks were simply taking from a really nasty crook. Newman and Redford were crooks, but they were nice crooks. In this movie, certainly at the beginning, the victims are all regular people, ones who will be hurt by the thefts. It makes it difficult to root for our heroes because they do non-heroic things.
But the movie does move through the plot, fast and fun at the beginning; unfortunately, slower later. But films coming out this time of year seldom are really good. Had the pace of the opening parts kept up, this would have been a big summer film.
Still, it is a pretty good film, and if you’re a Will Smith fan, you will like it. If you don’t know who Margot Robbie is, you will soon.