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Loses Focus at the End

Warner Brothers
 105 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie

As any stage magician will tell you, the real trick behind magic is misdirection. Most magic tricks are easy to detect if people know just where to look. It’s up to the magician and his assistants and whatever stagecraft and showmanship he can display to keep the audience distracted. That’s pretty much the same technique that con artist extraordinaire Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) uses to distract the marks that he fleeces. And, in addition, that’s pretty much the same technique that writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa use to keep the audience’s mind off of the numerous plot holes in their new movie Focus. Unfortunately, they can’t distract the audience for the entire film.

Focus is another movie on the art of the con, as practiced by Nicky and his crew of grifters. Their preferred modus operandi is to set up shop at a major event like a Super Bowl and to fleece as many people as possible in a short period of time by picking pockets, swiping credit cards, setting up fake ATM machines, and running other petty scams that, when added up, total a lot of money. The thefts themselves are petty, but Nicky as the gang leader is as suave and smooth as they come.

During his latest foray at a sporting event suspiciously like the Super Bowl (but not called by that name to avoid trademark issues), Nicky acquires a protégé, the incredibly sexy and incredibly eager to learn Jess (Margot Robbie). Jess first met Nicky when she tried to shake him down by having a jealous “husband” show up when he seduced her, and, out of curiosity, he played along for a while. She wants to learn the art and wasn’t happy with the few bits of advice he dispensed earlier. So, she follows him to New Orleans and impresses him enough to become part of his crew.

While the petty cons go quite well, amassing over a million dollars, Nicky runs into a problem… actually two problems. The first is that he winds up in bed for real with Jess and begins to develop some feelings for her. The second occurs when his weakness for gambling threatens to lose the crew’s entire take from their week of larceny by making an ever spiraling series of proposition bets with a high roller (B.D. Wong) who’s sharing his luxury box at the Super Bowl.

After the game, Nicky and Jess split, only to run into each other by chance three years later in Buenos Aires. This time, Nicky is trying for the big score, conspiring with a race car owner (Rodrigo Santoro) who has developed a new fuel formula that will give him an advantage over the competition. The idea is for Nicky to pose as a disgruntled team engineer and sell a fake version of the formula to the team’s biggest competitor (Robert Taylor of Longmire). However, when Nicky sees Jess on the owner’s arm and she tells Nicky that the owner is her new boyfriend, Nicky gets flustered and his plans may go awry. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the owner’s head of security (Gerald McRaney) doesn’t like the whole idea of resorting to a con game and doesn’t trust Nicky.

Of course, while it’s a good idea for the various potential marks in this movie not to trust Nicky, anyone who’s familiar with the works of David Mamet (or The Sting for that matter) know that it’s not a good idea for the audience to trust him or, for that matter, the writers. It’s not really giving anything away to say that there’s a lot more going on in Focus than meets the eye. By now, audiences expect that movies about con artists and con games, especially those made from the point of view of the grifters themselves, won’t play fair, either with the other characters in the movie or with the audience. And, frankly, that’s where the fun starts in this type of movie.

The first hour of Focus is a dizzying romp through the streets of and hotel rooms of New Orleans as Nicky’s crew plies their trade, picking pockets and pulling petty scams. Like a smoothly operating football team, each mini-heist involves several people working as a smoothly oiled team, and Ficarra and Roqua show this in a couple of crisply edited montage sequences. As Jess herself points out, there’s little con artistry and a lot of light fingered thievery going on here. Aficionados of movies like The Sting may be disappointed, but most viewers will enjoy the fast pace and enjoy Will Smith’s smooth presence as the Fagin masterminding the entire operation.

The real attention grabber of these sequences, and, indeed, of the entire movie, is Margot Robbie. She was impressive in Wolf of Wall Street, but she was just part of a large ensemble there. Here, she has her first chance to carry a movie and she manages to upstage Smith with a perfect blend of light comedy and sex appeal. Her skills are most apparent, in the Super Bowl betting set piece. Frankly, this sequence is the high point of the movie, both dramatically and stylistically, and things go downhill a bit from there.

Part of the reason for the movie’s rather tepid second half is the nature of the “big con” Nicky is involved in. It’s more of a computer espionage and hacking sort of caper than a straight up con game, and it’s not done all that well. Trying to turn Nicky into a cyber-con artist doesn’t work, even if he does have a prototypical hacker pal (Adrian Martinez) with him. Gerald McRaney steals every scene he’s in, but his presence isn’t enough to carry this part of the film by himself.

Further, the romantic aspect of the movie and the dramatic dilemma in which Nicky finds himself don’t really work either. Because this is a movie about the con, viewers have learned not to trust anything characters like Nicky and Jess say to each other or to the audience. So, the audience scrutinizes the couple’s scenes together far more carefully than in most movies, and the flaws are evident. Further, there are plenty of plot holes in the big con itself that won’t hold up to the scrutiny they are likely to receive from a by now, somewhat less-than-dazzled audience.

Focus is approximately one-half of a terrific caper film and one-half of a run-of-the-mill one. What Ficarra and Requa do well, they do very well indeed. But, like con artists going for that one last big score, they overstay their welcome, and the film suffers. Focus is perfectly satisfying light fare, but David Mamet doesn’t have anything to worry about from the players in this movie.

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Focus (2015) on IMDb