Focus (dir. Glenn Ficarra & John Requa)

Posted: March 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

There is a character in the film “Focus” whose nickname is “Mellow”.  It’s later revealed this is short for “Marshmallow”, which is apt as the film itself is a marshmallow.  It’s tasty, and you enjoy it while you’re consuming it, but it’s mostly air and not really filling.  There was not a single minute of “Focus” that I did not enjoy watching, but the film is ultimately nothing more than a pleasant two hours that don’t mean anything.  It’s a fun film, but one wonders why this film, which is empty, got made when others do not.

“Focus” is about con men, but not the extravagant con men of an “Ocean’s 11”, and the film explicitly tells us this in dialogue.  The con men in this film do small time cons in large volumes, which equate to large profits with low-to-medium risk.  Without knowing any professional con men in real life, I have no idea how realistic the film is, but it feels reasonably realistic for most of the first half, as we see a lot of sleight-of-hand pick pocketing and such, and that was good enough for me to become engrossed in this world.

Our main character is Nicky, played by Will Smith.  Nicky is the leader of a not-too-small group of people who steal wallets, jewelry, and credit card numbers to sell on the black and gray markets.  One day, an attractive blonde tries to con him and fails, but he Nicky likes the cut of her jib, and takes her into the fold for a ring he’s running in New Orleans during a Super Bowl-like game that can’t be called the Super Bowl for trademarked reasons.  This blonde is Jess, played by Margot Robbie.  Robbie burst onto the American film scene thanks to her role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and in this film she shows she can do a lot with an underwritten and frankly sexist character.  Robbie is funny and engaging on screen, and I now am optimistic that she was hired to play Harley Quinn in the “Suicide Squad” movie, which Will Smith will also be in.  While Jess does become fairly adept at stealing watches and using her sexuality to con marks, her character is on that we think will become a double-crosser or show herself to be smarter than we anticipate, but the film never really makes her more than a likeable bimbo.  It’s really a shame that writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa didn’t take this character in a different direction, because Robbie shows she could have been much more versatile than the screenplay allows her to be.

In any case, describing the plot in any details become hard without going into spoilers, and spoilers would ruin a film like this, which is based on surprises and how cons are set up and executed.  I will say that the first half of the film deals with the events in New Orleans and has a climax of sorts at the Super Bowl-like game, and the second half of the film takes place 3 years later in Buenos Aires.  The second half is less successful and enjoyable, and less believable, than the first half, and it sometimes feels like two slightly different movies were sewn together at some point, but the film still works enough.

I will mention that the climax at the not-Super Bowl involves Nicky gambling with an Asian businessman for increasingly large stakes in increasing ridiculous bets, and that scene is the highlight of the entire film, even if the revelations which come after it result in the scene being absurdly far-fetched in hindsight.  The Asian businessman is played by B.D. Wong, who is perhaps most famous for being the reserved psychologist on “Law & Order: SVU” or the closeted gay priest on “Oz”.  His role in this film, as Liyuan Tse, is unlike any role we’ve seen him in.  He is just over-the-top enough to make you realize the actor is having fun with a role that is kind of a stereotype, and he is engaging and delightful for every moment he is on screen.  One almost wishes for a spin-off film just about that character.

Another supporting character is Farhad, a con man who works with Nicky on the more technical aspects of his cons. He is played by Adrian Martinez and is an invaluable addition to the film. His character is supremely likeable and very funny.  He’s done extremely small roles in other films before, but in this film he makes us notice him, and he has the makings of a very funny and valuable comedic actor if he can get more roles of this size or greater.

The writer/directors of this film have previously made “I Love You Phillip Morris” (unseen by me) and “Crazy Stupid Love”, which was an enjoyable film that I often have trouble remembering because so little of that film stuck.  I feel like “Focus” will stick with me a little longer, mostly thanks to performances by Robbie, Wong, and Martinez, but otherwise there’s not much there here.  In addition to the films they have directed, they also wrote the children’s film “Cats & Dogs”, the excellent foul comedy “Bad Santa”, and the disappointing “The Bad News Bears” remake.  These guys are comedy writers first and foremost, and the comedy aspects of “Focus” work rather well, save for the disappointing though admittedly not clichéd ending.  I just wish these guys built up their dramatic bonafides, as a movie like “Focus” is really a mix of both and, while the bucking of conventions and the glimpse into a more realistic world of con men is appreciated, the drama, and especially the romantic drama, sometimes fall flat in the film.  It’d also be nice for a film to say something, and be more than just disposable entertainment.

One quibble on a screenplay level:  there’s a scene late in the film where a man goes into a pharmacy and buys a number of items (neck brace, rubbing alcohol, etc) needed to survive a premeditated car crash he plans on getting into. In a very nice one take shot (or a shot meant to look like it’s in one take) the man drives his car at high speed into the car of two characters he is trying to stop from escaping somewhere. My question is, how did he know where these characters were going to be far enough in advance to stop off at the pharmacy? He’d have to know when they’d be leaving their hotel room, and where abouts they’d be in the city, and that there wouldn’t be any other cars in his way for him to crash into them at the correct velocity.  It’s a great shot, but on a script level it simply doesn’t work.

The direction does work rather well in the film, though.  That one shot aside, there’s a visual motif of scenes either entering or exiting focus just after or before another scene, which works to tie in the film’s title and the concept of a good con man never losing focus, and it’s a nice leitmotif showing when Nicky is coming into or out of focus in his own life. It’s nicely done.  Aside from that, the pretty exteriors of exotic locales and nicely lit interiors of expensive hotel rooms do a good job of making this a visually pretty film to look at, as does dressing Robbie up in ever-skimpier clothing.

“Focus” is an entertaining film with some good performances and pretty visuals, and has an interesting soundtrack, that is ultimately about nothing and has a disappointing second half. I’m glad to have seen it, but I probably won’t remember much more than B.D. Wong’s scene as time goes on. B-

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