“It’s about distraction. It’s about focus. The brain is slow and it can’t multitask. Tap him here, take from there.”
Director: Glen Ficarra, John Requa
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro
Synopsis: In the midst of veteran con man Nicky’s latest scheme, a woman from his past – now an accomplished femme fatale – shows up and throws his plans for a loop.
Focus is one of those slick movies you’ll either love or hate – and if you love it, you’ll probably hate yourself for doing so. Will Smith (Wild Wild West, After Earth), whose comeback after a four-year sabbatical probably wasn’t going as well as he had planned, probably decided to play safe in the showy role of Nicky Spurgeon, an elite con-man who realises from the off that he’s being played when a gorgeous blonde sits at his table in a hotel restaurant and asks him to rescue her from the attentions of a drunken admirer. The woman is Jess (Margot Robbie – About Time, The Wolf of Wall Street). She’s strictly small-time, but Nicky sees potential and so allows her to talk him into a liaison in her hotel room, during which her gun-toting partner bursts in posing as her outraged husband. To be honest, Forrest Gump could have seen through their scam, but that’s by-the-by. The set-up isn’t so much to show how smart Nicky is, but to hook him up with Jess, and, having derailed their scam, he later offers Jess the opportunity to become a member of his organisation of highly-skilled grifters and pickpockets.
Nicky’s philosophy, inherited from his con-man father, is that there are two types of people in the world: hammers and nails. We, the audience, it transpires, are the nails, amongst whom Nicky’s team operates with well-oiled precision and apparent impunity. Revellers in New Orleans prove to be rich pickings, yielding $1.2 million over one weekend. Jess and the film admire Nicky and his crew, but the rest of us might struggle to share their glee of relieving all those nails of their hard-earned. Usually, movies like this ensure that those who are conned are even less principled than those doing the conning, but Focus makes no such concessions. We’re all fair game to Nicky and his crew, and while you have to admire the film’s nerve and honesty (or marvel at its unthinking stupidity – I still haven’t decided which), that weekend crime spree really makes it difficult to like them.
Filled with pretty stars and sophisticated locations, Focus is a glossy, entertaining piece of fluff, which constantly has us second-guessing ourselves as we try to figure out who is conning who and when. Its biggest coup is the way it succeeds in preventing you from caring too much about the improbabilities of the plot until after the credits have rolled. One scam, in which Nicky takes a high-stakes gambler for millions at a football game, requires a degree of planning and psychological programming that simply isn’t feasible – there are too many ways in which the scam could fail. But of course it all goes to plan, and while we admire the ingenuity and audacity of this likeable bunch of rogues, we also wish real life was that easy.
Smith is on familiar turf here, and clicks with the delicious Ms Robbie who, for the male members of the audience at least, is reason enough to watch. The inevitable last-reel twist does render some scenes pointless or nonsensical, but we don’t realise that while we’re watching. And, of course, that, as we should all know by now, is the art of the con…
(Reviewed 17th January 2016)
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