There was a time when I’d never met a movie about con artists that I didn’t like. You name it: the almighty Sting, the classic you-didn’t-even-know-this-was-a-con Usual Suspects, George C. Scott’s The Flim-Flam Man; modern takes like Matchstick Men, Catch Me If You Can, American Hustle; the super-rewatchable original Italian Job and the super-rewatchable remake Ocean’s Eleven. Some of these — like, say, The Spanish Prisoner — technically aren’t that great as far as cinema is concerned. Maybe that’s part of what’s so damn endearing about them: they’re movies, not films, which means they could conceivably appeal to just about anyone because style and fun outweigh technique and competence. I think I was just fine with that for a while, and I might still be.
But I also remember taking issue with Christopher Nolan (you: “who the hell are you to challenge Christopher Nolan?”; me: “I have as many Oscars as he does“) when he made the following comment about heist movies in an LA Times interview while filming Inception:
I originally wrote [Inception] as a heist movie, and heist movies traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms…they’re frivolous and glamorous, and there’s a sort of gloss and fun to it. I originally tried to write it that way, but when I came back to it I realized that — to me — that didn’t work for a film that relies so heavily on the idea of the interior state, the idea of dream and memory. I realized I needed to raise the emotional stakes.
So yeah, I get that — the gloss, the fun, the style, and the glamour of it all sometimes distract from the fact that the characters are pretty hollow inside their Gucci suits and Versace dresses. But I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that an entire genre is traditionally devoid of emotion. When Johnny Hooker’s mentor bites it in The Sting, the emotional offering isn’t just that immediate moment of anguish. The whole movie, the success of the long con, the ups and downs and final triumph at the climax — that’s all done out of emotion for that death at the beginning of the film. The fact that the film is stylish as all heck is completely secondary. Ditto Inception, in fact.
So what about Focus? Isn’t this a review of Focus? Let’s be honest here: it’s a Will Smith movie. It’s never out of the realm of possibility that the end credits of this thing will roll over the “Focus Rap”, and here we are dredging up a Redford/Newman ’70s classic and quotes from Christopher Freaking Nolan. And besides, Focus isn’t even really a con-man flick at all — it’s a romantic drama masquerading as a con-man flick. So…what? Does that mean the aforementioned “deliberate superficiality” is in fact unwarranted? Let’s find out.
There’s one scene set amongst fancy box seats at an NFL game in which Smith’s Nicky and Margot Robbie’s Jess start a friendly betting game on random occurrences in the cheap seats below — this many guys look at that girl’s ass? Five bucks. This hot dog lands somewhere other than the hungry intended recipient? Ten bucks. Eventually a seedy onlooker played by B.D. Wong wants in on the action, and soon the bets just keep getting more and more ridiculous. Jess taps out, but Nicky keeps going and losing more and more. We know from an earlier, wink-wink line (something like “Don’t go gambling, now, Nicky”, so not so wink-wink after all) that Nicky has a gambling addiction. Here it’s out in full force.
He bets a thousand dollars. Loses it. Jess stands up to leave and asks Nicky to join her. He follows, stops, turns, bets higher. He bets five thousand. Loses it. Jess asks Nicky to leave. He follows, stops, turns, bets higher. Double or nothing. He loses it. Jess asks Nicky to leave. He follows, stops, turns, bets higher. Double or nothing. He loses it.
This scene goes on forever. Nicky doubles his luck until he’s at two million or something. Are you excited? Go back and read that last paragraph. Pretty dull when it’s written out, no? The actual scene is somehow even more monotonous, and much much longer. Still, even though the style and fun and glamour and all is evaporated from this mindless back and forth, at least there’s some emotion in the scene because of Nicky’s addiction. He’s unable to stop, even though he’s clearly headed in a bad direction, and even B.D. Wong’s long-pocketed gambler seems to feel bad for him.
But — oh, wait — it’s a con. This is Focus in a nutshell: the rare moments of genuine emotion are not in fact moments of genuine emotion at all. They’re tricks. And they’re not stylish tricks, either. There’s no Redford clicking his heels in a new red pinstripe suit. The primary scam of Nicky’s crew? Walk around and pickpocket people. Seriously. That’s it. These aren’t brilliant scoundrels pulling Band-of-Merry-Men cons on the rich and powerful — these are thieves taking watches and camera lenses from tourists. At worst Focus has scenes that appear to be stylish and emotional, except you find out midway through that they’re actually neither.
At best, there is at least a pinch of style here. It’s Will Smith and Margot Robbie and they’re globetrotting from one city to the next, and when Focus agrees to just be that and forget about all of the self-seriousness it’s much easier to just go along with the party. Again, scenes like the one at the football game probably don’t bother you if you’re just here for the sexy leads, or for the “Focus Rap”. As far as romantic dramas go, Focus isn’t half-bad once you ignore the fact that Smith is old enough to be Robbie’s dad. But it isn’t a con movie, really, and so the assumption that it can survive on style because other movies in the con/heist genre do the same is misplaced.