Saturday, June 20, 2015

Movie Reviews: Focus

directed by Glenne Ficarra and John Requa
As I get older I wonder if the saying that there aren't many new stories, just recycled ones actually has some truth to it. Certainly the film Focus hit on a great many themes which are common to stories you've heard before (fractured parent and child relationships, the inability to tell if something is truly love or just lust, and the dedicated player/con man/gambler, who like the people in the Bob Seger song Still the Same ,may never truly be made to go straight or change) So this movie will probably feel very familiar to you, albeit in a good way. I'd compare it to a favorite pair of slippers.  Nothing special, just nice and comfortable. Unfortunately unlike the similar films Now You See Me or Contraband Focus slightly misses its mark by not having a particularly strong, intelligent or dangerous adversary with whom the lead character can interact. Without this conflict you're not always able to admire the lead character's resourcefulness or shake your head in wonder as to how he got out of that jam. Focus does have one or two good set scenes where the viewer can really enjoy the intelligence and swagger of the lead character but overall this would have been a much better and more enjoyable film with a nastier or more intelligent bad guy to push the lead. On the other hand whereas many of these heist/con type films are concerned with the battle of wits between and among men, Focus features that only as a secondary issue. The film is far more interested with the professional and personal relationship between a man and woman grifter. So in some respects this is as much of a romance film mixed with heists as it is a drama film about the underworld of con men. There's some violence in Focus but not all that much. Con men almost by definition like to avoid violence. If they do their job correctly they're able to have their victims willingly give them money. A good mark never knows he's been conned. You can wonder a little bit about the sort of people who do this for a living but the film doesn't allow you to see the world any other way except through the con artist's eyes. As a result you end up identifying with the protagonists who, truth be told are exactly the sort of lowlifes who will steal your credit card number and ruin your credit, sell you ocean front property in Kansas, and get you to give them two tens for a five. You may end up admiring their panache even though, unlike the con artists in the underrated British series Hustle, these scoundrels have no interest in righting wrongs or only ripping off the greedy.

The male slickster is Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), a debonair fellow who's equally adept with long complicated deception schemes and short cons. He'll spend 3 months hacking into your payroll system or 3 seconds palming your Bulgari watch. It's all the same to Nicky. He runs a large loyal diverse crew of con artists, hackers, gamblers, fences and all around thieves. In a nightclub/hotel Nicky runs into Jess (Margot Robbie), who attempts to con him via the old "we were just about to roll and tumble but my husband caught us so pay him and he won't kill you" trick. Nicky's not bothered. He's seen through the con already. He knows that Jess and her partner are inexperienced and more importantly, not dangerous. He walks away. A few days later Jess tracks down Nicky. She's dropped the loser she was with formerly. She's found out some of Nicky's backstory and learned that he's a legend among con men. She wants to become his apprentice and ultimately much more. Nicky's intrigued though he's not fond of mixing business and pleasure. Usually that just ends up with people getting hurt. Well you can imagine just how long Nicky holds on to that rule. Men generally don't turn down such requests from Jess. Despite his profession Nicky seems to be an otherwise moral person. He must decide whether Jess is ready for a big job in Argentina with Rafael (Rodrigo Santoro) and/or if he is ready to settle down and go straight with Jess. And Jess must find out if she can trust Nicky to keep his word. Is he truly the one? And both must discover if the other person is just running the long con on him or her. After all if you love a professional liar how do you really know when he or she is telling the truth. A con artist's truth can vary. A good con artist always has plenty of options available as the situation changes. Watching this movie you'll know from the very first setpiece that a big con is coming but some of them will probably come as surprises. This is the case even though the film, via Nicky, tells the viewer almost everything that is going to happen in the story in the first 10 minutes. It's just that you don't realize that until after the fact because of the misdirection employed.

Both Smith and Robbie are in excellent physical shape and enliven the film's visuals. This film looks great! The film was shot in New Orleans and Buenos Aires. All in all this movie was passably good, but generic. It was worth seeing on DVD or VOD. I would have thought it a bit of a waste to see it in the theater. Farhad (Adrian Martinez) brings deadpan humor as one of Nicky's worldweary employees/partners.
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