Every movie about con artists ends up trying to pull a con on the audience. Now that we’ve seen so many con artist movies, we’re catching on and it’s getting harder. When it’s blatant, it’s no fun. Focus may have solved the conundrum of the con artist movie. Writer/directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa pulled off the ultimate prestige.
Nicky (Will Smith) is a master con artist who spots Jess (Margot Robbie)’s amateur moves coming, but has fun watching them play out. He takes her under his wing and incorporates her into his complex network of hustlers working entire cities at once.
I kept waiting for the fun operations of Focus to give way to the long con, because most movies always need to settle into a single plot. Focus found a way to keep moving without succumbing to that cliche. I won’t spoil how it does that, but at least I can praise them for what they didn’t do.
The script knows the con genre and plays to that. It’s going to throw every genre beat at us but every cliche is a con. The film has us paying rapt attention as it embeds the details of each con, and then reveals the prestige. Go ahead and trust Ficarra and Requa. Go on this ride with them. It’s fun. They film really well in smooth tracking shots too. One impressive one spanned half a rotation of the earth without cutting.
Focus is also an important lesson for all of us to be more aware. Don’t be distracted. Don’t be someone’s mark. Nicky’s team has codes to signal each other so fast I couldn’t even catch them all, and the movie points that out. It’s scary how easy this is, with all their James Bond-ian gadgets making it even easier. If this exists, how do any of us still have stuff? Just think how many DMV appointments people had to make when Nicky’s team lifted their wallets.
The Will Smith charm is back. He did one movie where he played a stoic character, but now it’s back to Big Willie charisma. Robbie holds up nicely to that powerful presence. Gerald McRaney tears it up when he shows up. The horny fat guy (Adrian Martinez) on Nicky’s team isn’t as funny as he or the movie thinks he is. It’s the gratuitous sex jokes, nothing against Martinez. I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, so maybe that was a con too.
It seems that Ficarra and Requa figured out how to con a film critic. I’m generally still surprised by mysteries. It’s more plot motions I see coming than specific twists, but Focus had me going so that even when it takes leaps, I trusted them.