Monday 10 July 2017

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

A drama and romance set in the world of high stakes con artists, Focus is too slick for its own good and never gains emotional traction.

Smooth con man Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) easily picks out the inexperienced Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) as she tries to pull off a clumsy sting. She insists on shadowing him to hone her skills and tracks him down to New Orleans, where she joins his crew as they work the crowds ahead of a big football game. Nicky and Jess become a pair, and after clearing over a million dollars from swindles in one week, Nicky matches wits with the extremely wealthy Liyuan Tse (B.D. Wong) in a high stakes betting duel.

At the end of the New Orleans trip the relationship between Nicky and Jess ends abruptly. Three years later in Buenos Aires, Nicky is planning an elaborate con job with wealthy motor racing team owner Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). But Nicky is stunned to again bump into Jess, who is now Rafael's girlfriend. Nicky is torn between reigniting a romance with Jess and fulfilling the con, while Rafael's head of security Owens (Gerald McRaney) grows increasingly suspicious of Nicky's motives.

Co-directed and co-written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Focus looks sharp and exudes a certain amount of appealing cool. The pacing is brisk, the cinematography rich and Will Smith and Margot Robbie make for an elegant couple.

But that's about all there is to enjoy in Focus. The film is too eager to portray Nicky as the king of the ultimate con, always several steps ahead of everyone around him. But without delving into the depth of his character he remains a superficial presence, with every one of his actions likely to be not what it seems. The film defaults to an exercise of guessing what the next game is rather than investing in any actual onscreen romance or drama. Nicky cannot be trusted in anything he says or does, so there is no value to be gained in believing any of his romantic overtures or spoken words.

Ficarra and Requa also push the envelope too far. The impromptu gambling joust with Liyuan Tse crosses the line into ridiculous territory, while the final con in Buenos Aires is both poorly defined - something silly about peddling secret algorithms that make racing cars go faster - and ponderously executed with an absurd variation on an old trick.

Focus has a few enjoyable moments mingling among crooked tricksters, but is mostly a frustratingly shallow exercise.

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