Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Rohan Laments A Certain Lack of 'Focus'

(Our friend Rohan Morbey seems to have been bitterly conned by Focus, Will Smith's new movie about, appropriately enough, conmen. His review, which he's generously let us cross-post here, appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!)

The fundamental problem with films like Focus lays in how many similar films like Focus you may have seen. In this case, you know you’re in for a con, but the fun is always in how the con is pulled off and how the film can gain the confidence of the audience only to trick us at the end. Unfortunately, even if you’ve seen just one similar film chances are it’s far better than this.

When I think of all the best con artist movies I’ve seen over the years – The Sting, Matchstick Men, House Of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, The Grifters, Ocean’s Eleven, and the largely underrated Edward Burns movie Confidence to name but a few – there are several elements which make them memorable: the con, the characters, the stakes, the set-ups, the writing or the obstacles the heroes face. Each film has many layers and all make for at least an entertaining romp, or in the case of The Sting something far greater. Watching Focus is like putting the pieces of far better films put together under a new title, when in fact it’s as bland as any remake/reboot you can name.

The film starts promisingly. Will Smith (the sole reason for watching) is a con man who leads a large team of con artists targeting popular events like the Super Bowl or World Series where people go to let loose, get drunk, open their wallets and let down their guard. After a meet-cute with Margot Robbie (pretty face but zero charisma) where she’s on the job, Smith initiates her into his team. Quickly she learns how to get to somewhere near his level of skill, and I quite enjoyed the promise of a team of con artists (‘Smith’s Thirty’ perhaps) traveling the world pulling jobs in 48 hours, getting out and getting rich. It’s a different take on a familiar genre, I thought, and I was on board.

That’s at around twenty minutes in. After this point, and you’ll have to excuse the pun, Focus quickly loses focus and becomes increasingly boring. After an extended scene of high stakes betting with a super-rich businessman whose resolution is as painfully obvious as it is stupid, the film tells us it’s ‘three years later’ for the sole reason that there is no where left to go. The plot has run out of steam at 45 minutes and a new story is brought in where essentially everything which has gone before is going to be either a (painful obvious) callback or of no consequence whatsoever. Either way the second half of this film is a non-starter.

There is a job for Smith to do but the focus is rarely on the confidence tricks and we’re left with the classic ‘here’s how I did it’ montage which relies on computer hacking at the heart of it. Computer hacking and file stealing is not a confidence trick, and it’s a total cop-out in a film about con artists. What’s left is a strained romance between Smith and Robbie which is never more than surface level, and twists which I actively tried to guess – and that’s something I never, ever do when a film which relies on twists and turns is actually engaging me.

Director/screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa shoot nothing but style (or at least lavish locations and sexy people on repeat) over substance, giving their two lead characters no arcs or discernible characteristics. The status quo never changes for Smith and nothing is ever at stake in the film; and even when Ficarra and Requa try to make you think it is, you know it isn’t. In movies like this the film works best when it’s one step ahead of the audience but in Focus I think we’re matching it stride for stride; eventually, no one really cares what’s going on.

Will Smith is such a charming leading man, he could have pulled off a Danny Ocean-like role with charisma to spare and Focus could have served up a new take on an old tale. Alas, this is just another attempt to rework a genre which has seen some truly great films do it all before and it isn’t like Focus even tries to copy them; it loses its focus, and the audience loses its patience.

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