I have always been told and believed taking a short cut was no way to be successful. It was drummed into my head I should be honest, hardworking and dedicated. Those who tried to avoid hard work were just cheating themselves and those around them. Their successes would be meaningless and fleeting. Apparently I was in the minority of people who listened to that speech as athletes, coaches, stock brokers, lawyers, Fortune 500 CEO’s and more show up on TV being accused and convicted of taking shortcuts to achieve success and wealth. One must assume that for every person caught cheating or skimming or lying or stealing there are likely many more that get away with no repercussions. It’s almost enough to drive a law-abiding person into a life of crime…almost. At heart I’m a coward and far too disorganized to ever come up with a good plan and put it in place without catastrophe. Also, I’m far too pretty to go to prison. The subjects of this week’s film “Focus” have no such qualms about breaking the rules and possibly facing punishment and they are all far prettier than me.
While eating dinner at a high end hotel restaurant, Nicky (Will Smith) notices a beautiful young woman at the bar fending off the advances of a drunken businessman. He doesn’t pay it much mind until she comes to his table and asks him to pretend to be her date. She introduces herself as Jess (Margot Robbie) and the two share a pleasant evening which ends in Jess’s room at the hotel. As they are kissing on the bed, a man breaks in who Jess identifies as her husband. He has a gun and is threatening to kill Nicky. Nicky is calm as he has seen through the shakedown attempt. He critiques their style and soon leaves the room unharmed and with all his money. Later, Jess tracks Nicky down and asks him to teach her all about the con game. Nicky is from a long line of con men and is something of a legend himself. At first reluctant, Nicky gives in after she follows him to his next job in New Orleans. After running a few pickpocket and other cons in New Orleans, Nicky decides to make Jess part of the crew. They also become lovers. Nicky leads a gang of thieves, swindlers and con artists around the country to major sporting events like the championship football games going on in New Orleans. Their work pays off big time with over one-million dollars in profits that will be divided up amongst the gang. Nicky has all the money in a bag and takes it and Jess to the Superdome to watch the game. Nicky and Jess play a little game putting small wagers on the outcome of the next play or things going on in the crowd. A Chinese businessman named Liyuan Tse (B.D. Wong) overhears their bets and asks to become involved. Nicky loses all the gang’s money but makes one more bet double or nothing…and wins. Afterwards, Jess learns Liyuan was a mark and everything that happened was planned. Leaving the game, Nicky tells Jess she’s out and gives her $80,000 and tells the driver to take her to the airport. Three years later in Buenos Aires, Nicky is working for Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a formula one race team owner, who wants to sabotage the only other team that might beat him with some phony software they think is helping their fuel mileage. At a party to celebrate the start of the race season, and where the groundwork for the con will be laid, Nicky sees Jess across the ballroom at Garriga’s side. Later, Jess slips away and meets with Nicky on a balcony. She explains she’s out of the con game and is currently with Garriga. She asks Nicky to keep her past and her relationship with him a secret. As the con plays out, Nicky is losing focus because of his feelings for Jess. In his business, that can be deadly.
I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the theatre to watch “Focus.” I knew it looked pretty and had lots of attractive people attached; but I also noticed its middling reviews. I was about as blank a slate as any movie could want when the lights went down. When the room brightened again, I was impressed with a pretty standard caper movie that managed to keep me guessing all the way.
While there are some moments that stretch credulity to the limit (like Jess and Nicky both being in Buenos Aires at the same time), overall the storytelling is pretty tight and manages to keep things interesting. The colorful locations and attractive people help keep the eye entertained while the machinations of Nicky and his con crew are constantly teasing the mind with now-you-see-it tricks. A couple of times, the audience is completely in the dark as to the game being played until everything has come to fruition. It’s a twisty story that will have some in the audience confused if they don’t pay attention. I was riveted to the screen and there were times I wasn’t sure what was happening but in a good way as the movie doesn’t show all its cards until the right time. The writers had to walk a fine line between believable deceptions and impossible scams. To do that, they brought in a con artist consultant to create some original ruses for the film. Most of that shows up in the pickpocket cons which appear to be works of art using timing, distraction and misdirection to work their magic. The larger cons are based on human nature and knowing how to manipulate people into giving you what you want. Greed is the prime motivation for both the con man and the target as huge sums of money are involved.
The cast is stellar with Margot Robbie outshining Will Smith. Robbie, who was so impressive in “Wolf of Wall Street,” is given another role in which her beauty is used as part of her character. While it seems sexist to make her looks so much a part of her character, Robbie is so good you quickly accept her character for her skills and ambition. Robbie is able to play both the innocent victim and conniving femme fatale with equal believability. Jess is sexy and average, brash and demure, guilty and innocent. It makes for a fascinating character to watch as she becomes more a part of Nicky’s world.
Will Smith turns in a fine performance as the cold and calculating Nicky. He takes a complicated character and makes us understand his conflict in dealing with his feelings for Jess even without saying anything. While his façade of cool breaks down somewhat in the second half of the film, Smith still gives a performance that is multidimensional and shows us a character that is learning and changing despite his desire not to. Smith has had a run of bad luck and bad movies over the last several years. Some of his films have divided audiences while others have been expensive flops. Smith used to be guaranteed box office success but some of that shine has worn off. While “Focus” won’t set any box office records, it should give Smith some boost that his acting talent hasn’t diminished.
“Focus” is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. The sexual content is brief but very intimate. We get a very brief view of a topless Margot Robbie. A few punches are thrown, we see an intentional car wreck from inside one of the vehicles and one character is shot in the chest. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
“Focus” is not only a theme of the movie but a command for the audience. If you aren’t willing to invest some of your grey matter in the following of this story, stay home. While there is some beautiful scenery and attractive people, the real strength of the film is the stories of deception and deceit. Some of these require some effort on the part of the audience. If you make that effort, you’ll find a rewarding movie going experience.
“Focus” gets four stars out of five.
Just two new films open this week. I’ll see at least one of them and report back what I think.
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