Monday, June 22, 2015

Focus: A Review


Will Smith has been having a bad time of it recently.  Once, he was the go-to man for big-budget popcorn films, one of the few African-American actors who could transcend racial lines and appeal to all moviegoers.  He parlayed that into a serious acting career, with two Oscar nominations (both I think merited).  Now, he's had a series of box office disappointments and downright bombs ranging from the odd but ambitious Seven Pounds to the horror/ego trip/progeny vehicle of After Earth.   Smith is a shrewd manager of his career and persona, and I figure he realized his career was going off when it need not.  As a result, I figure he figured a stylish crime caper could put him if not back on top, at least restore a bit of the Smith luster.

Focus has a lot of style, but what it doesn't have is, well, focus.  Style will get you only so far, and audiences are I think willing to let go of some things.  However, Focus tries to be too clever in its con games, coming up with twists and turns that instead of being clever and stylish, become a bit puzzling and a tad too convenient to be believed.

Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is a professional con man.  One night, the beautiful Jess (Margot Robbie) attempts to rob him through seduction, but being new to grifting, she flops.  A few days later, she finds him and asks if she could be his protégé.   He agrees and a romance develops.  Their big score is at the Super Bowl, where he, with her unwitting help, manages to rob Lyuan Tse (B.D. Wong), a big-time gambler.   However, Nicky, concerned that his professional and private lives are colliding, sends Jess away with part of the share they won off Tse.

A few years later, they reunite accidentally.  Nicky has been hired by Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a billionaire racing car owner.  He wants Nicky to get him a new device from his rival that will give him an edge in racing.  Despite the loud objections of Rafael's right-hand man Owens (Gerald McRaney), Nicky begins his scheme.  At the party that will launch the long con, he discovers that Rodrigo's girlfriend is Jess, who appears to have gone legit.  Again the personal and professional begin to collide, with Owens hot on their heels.  Eventually the con goes wrong, for Nicky has taken the device and apparently sold it to all the rivals.  Rafael discovers this and is enraged, and he suspects that Jess is part of the scheme.  Owens shoots Nicky, shocking everyone and causing Rodrigo to flee (not wanting to be part of murder).

We end up discovering that this was all part of the show, for Owens is really Nicky's estranged father (!), and they get away, though Jess has to take Nicky to the hospital for that non-life threatening but still painful bullet wound.

I think where the film kind of lost me in terms of thinking it good was in the long Super Bowl sequence.   There was a lot at stake, and it looked like Nicky's compulsion to win was going to be a major part of the movie, giving us a complicated character and situation.  He kept gambling and gambling, putting the team's money in danger as his compulsion kept growing. 

All well and good, until we get to a point where he actually pulls it off.  Even then, we might think that was wonderful, until Nicky explains to Jess how he did it.  Then it just falls apart.  Why?  Because it relies on far too many variables to work exactly correct and it becomes far-fetched.  If we are to believe Focus' screenplay, Tse had been manipulated for days to think of a particular number over and over, right down to the hotel's décor, so that after apparently deliberately losing again and again, Nicky could manipulate Tse enough to have him subconsciously select a particular player based on the subliminal number he had been seeing for days on end without him knowing it.  It also required that Jess be somewhat conned herself and that one of the team's players (who was also part of the con) be there, visible, to allow her to select HIS team number (which was the exact number Tse selected).

It all seems a little too convoluted to fully accept, and this is where Focus went a bit off.  It tries too hard to be clever, but it doesn't back it up.  We don't have any clues or suggestions that the fellow con man was a football player, let alone that the high-roller could possibly have a number fed to him by the light fixtures at the hotel looking like a particular number without it being obvious.

Worse was the Owens twist.  Nothing suggests that, and just declaring it so comes across as ludicrous.  Given how often we're if not directly told that Nicky's father was dead (or at least have it highly suggested) to have Owens suddenly 'pop' up seems too far-fetched and convenient to be believed. 

This is where Focus goes wrong: again and again it wants to show off how clever it all is, when the twists are more unbelievable than clever.

This isn't to say Focus was horrible.  It has a strong visual style and flair.  If nothing else, Focus is very stylish in its look.   Robbie may not be the best actress around, but she makes for lovely eye candy and does the best she can.  McRaney was a bit comical in his eternal gruffness, and Santoro too did the best he could with the menacing playboy.  As for Smith, he still has the charm to make the con man believable, but because the script by co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa never decides when he isn't conning, we never know if he is sincerely surprised and hurt to see Jess again or whether it's all part of some bizarre and insane master plan that even Jess doesn't know she's a pawn of (despite them not seeing each other in three years).

Focus has a great style, but I would have sacrificed some of its style for substance.  Still, I imagine it would be a bit harmless to watch if nothing else is on.  In the end, Will Smith needs to find stronger scripts to get his own game in order.


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