As slick as Danny Ocean and as badass as a Rolling Stones song, “Focus” (released Feb. 27) is one of the best movies about con artists in the 21st century since “Matchstick Men;” perhaps the best of its kind since the “The Sting,” which won an Oscar back in 1973. The title is no joke as the details can be fuzzier than pocket lint if you’re not paying attention. That’s not a bad thing for the latest entry in a genre that has been done six ways from Sunday. Any heist or con can be judged based on how well it can trick the audience as well as its characters and “Focus” is full of enough surprising (and creative) twists and double-crosses to fill a season of “House of Cards.” By the end, intriguing and esoteric concepts like “Toledo Panic Button” should become second nature to you if you ever wish to pursue a life of thievery.
The writing and directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa step up to the plate for “Focus.” The old adage about too many cooks doesn’t pose a problem with their fun and stylish approach complete with a story about duplicitous hustlers, swindlers and crooks led by Will Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon, a veteran of the thieving world who can “convince anyone of anything.”
The name of the “Fresh Prince” actor alone once assured box office success, but in recent years he’s starred in very little and even tarnished his golden reputation with the M. Night Shyamalan atrocity “After Earth.” However, “Focus” finds Smith back at his most charming and charismatic, able to woo the viewer into believing whatever trick he’s got hidden up his sleeve. His performance is a mix of memorable roles past, combining the smooth-talking lead from “Hitch” and the wisecracking agent from “Men in Black.”
So who’s being robbed exactly? For all intents and purposes, anyone and everyone is a target as Nicky and his quirky yet effective team go after those who are both unwitting and shortsighted. Everything changes when Jess Barrett, a novice pick-pocket, comes into the picture and under Nicky’s tutelage. She’s played by Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) who can more than spar with Smith as the plot’s femme fatale, proving that she can provide an impressionable performance without having to take her clothes off. Her peppy, almost childish excitement offers a nice balance to Smith’s level headedness. We’ll see them together again soon in David Ayer’s 2016 “Suicide Squad” as Deadshot and Harley Quinn respectively. Maybe Smith can do a better job in the superhero genre this time around after his tepid showing in “Hancock.”
Jumping from New Orleans to Buenos Aires, the plot can feel like an episodic exercise rather than a cohesive whole, something that the trailer misleadingly implies. This is a critique that could also be made of Ficarra and Requa’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Nevertheless, the ride is so exciting that you’ll hardly notice, keeping rapt your attention. Trust me when I say that this is one movie that will have you digging your fingernails into the arms of the theater seat as you attempt to discern what is a con and what is reality. It will continue to stick in your brain long after you leave as you try to work out all the intricacies of the plan.
Like any con movie you’ve seen in the past decade (e.g. “The Illusionist,” “Now You See Me”), the characters need to explain how they pulled off the impossible with long-winded explanations accompanied by flashbacks that make the answer so face-palmingly obvious. However, these breaks for exposition never feel like a chore. The script actually finds a way to make them as entertaining as the rest of the movie, inserting ingenious insights that one can go to convince a person of anything. For instance, I was literally on the verge of squealing with excitement when one of the most famous rock songs ever (and one of my personal favorites) was brought so cleverly into the mix for a sequence with a Chinese gambler.
While the protagonists get into some hot water, there’s an ironic brand of humor that one might associate with Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy. Anyone can say or do something funny without even intending to do so while an unassuming tune plays in the background. There’s a coolness from the way in which the film glorifies criminal lifestyle with its pleasant, warm cinematography, capturing crowded football stadiums and extravagant Argentinian hotels. It’s all a shiny distraction of alcohol, women and money that masks all the bulls–t that drives Nicky’s line of work. It’s also a good old piece of cinematic escapism that anyone can get behind. It helps make a compelling case for Mick Jagger when he sang, “Every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints.”
At its core, “Focus” attempts to reconcile the axiom that “There is no honor among thieves.” It poses the conundrum of whether Nicky and Jess can find love in the con artist business. To get the answer, you’ll have to embark on a classy journey of Rat Pack-ian proportions. Walking into the theater, I admit I didn’t have high expectations from the mixed reviews I had heard about the movie. Afterwards, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved it. Guess the con was on me.