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Focus (2015)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"No "Maudlin's Eleven"
2 stars

"Focus" is a film in which Will Smith plays an ultra-slick con man who embarks on an elaborate scheme to relieve someone with more money than common sense of millions of dollars utilizing charm, bluster and a story that even the most gullible of individuals might find themselves questioning at times if it was put forth to them. (No, there is no truth to the rumor that it was originally intended to be titled "The Making of After Earth.") In theory, this sounds like it might have the makings for a reasonably diverting night at the movies but somewhere along the lines between conception and execution, something clearly went horribly wrong because the end result is a smug, soulless and deeply annoying contraption that spends too much time trying to throw its increasingly implausible narrative curveballs at the audience and not nearly enough time giving them a story or characters that they can invest enough interest in so that they can at least be somewhat surprised by the relentless rug-pulling on display.

Smith plays Nicky and he isn't just a con man--he is the most brilliant, awesome, clever and resourceful con man to ever walk amongst us. He is so wise to the ways of the world that when sexy blonde Jess (Margot Robbie) befriends him in a hotel bar one night and lures him up to her room into a compromising position that promises to turn violent when her jealous, gun-toting boyfriend bursts in, he is able to instantly spot all the little clues that the entire thing was a con job that simply wasn't up to his incredibly exacting standards--well, that or he was one of the three people in America who actually payed money to go see the forgettable Jennifer Aniston thriller "Derailed" during its uber-brief theatrical run back in the day. Nevertheless, Nicky sees something in Jess--a Google image search of Margot Robbie should be a helpful indicator of what he sees--and he agrees to take her under her wing and bring her into his operation just as he and his crew are off to New Orleans to work the big championship game between two football teams who have nothing to do with the NFL--after all, if there is one evil that the NFL is more than willing to punish severely, it is trademark infringement.

Speaking of Google, Nicky's operation is lavish enough to even put that company to shame--a huge workforce of expert grifters, lavish operating quarters and the most high-tech equipment available. The operation is so over-the-top, in fact, that even if the gang wound up fleecing every single person attending the game, it would seem as if they would still have trouble recouping their expenses, let alone turn a profit. Well, apparently Louisiana is a right-to-grift state because Nicky and the gang wind up making a couple of million dollars conning, misleading or outright stealing from unwitting dupes and Nicky even finds himself growing closer and closer to Jess in the process. (Again, do the Google search and try to forget that Robbie was born the same year that "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" premiered.) However, Nicky is one of those guys who just can't let anyone get too close to him and so he resolves that issue the only way he knows how--by giving Jess 80 grand and leaving her without any explanation. Of course, this is presumably not entirely unheard of in New Orleans apres the faux-Super Bowl but Jess seems to take it kind of hard.

The story picks up three years later with Nicky in Buenos Aires to hatch a multi-million deal with rich and powerful auto racing magnate Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), who has developed a fast-burning fuel McGuffin that is sure to give his car the extra edge in an upcoming race. The plan, near as I can figure, is to have Nicky pose as a disgruntled employee who will then sell a fake version of the formula to his chief rival so that--okay, I admit I am a little shaky on what the point of all of this is. Nevertheless, Nicky agrees to the plan even though Garriga's chief enforcer (Gerald McRaney) has his suspicions about the newcomer. Everything is set for the con to take place when Jess unexpectedly turns up on Garriga's arm. Still hung up on her, Jess's presence drives Nicky to distraction--does he want the enormous amount of money he is set to make or is he willing to give it all up for Jess--and that momentary lack of focus could be the difference between riches and death.

There have been countless movies about con men pulling elaborate scams made over the years and in general, some of them good (I persist in adoring Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" trilogy--all of them--even if he doesn't think much of them) and some not so good (I must confess that "The Sting" has never done much for me, no matter how many times I have tried to get into it over the years). The thing about films like this that the unfolding con games at the center of the story are generally the least interesting things about them--since it is all but guaranteed that what we are watching is not entirely as it seems to be, it is difficult to get too heavily invested in them. No, for a film of this sort to really work, it needs to have one of two things--it either needs a bad guy so loathsome and distasteful that it will be a pleasure to see them get taken for everything they have (such as the Andy Garcia character in "Ocean's Eleven") or the flim-flam artist needs to be so interesting or compelling that we are willing to forgive their trespasses and follow them around as they go about their daily business of bilking people out of their money (one of the greatest being the grifter played by Joe Mantegna in David Mamet's brilliant con drama "House of Games").

Will Smith presumably knows this--after all, his first notable success on the big screen was as a young con artist in the film adaptation of "Six Degrees of Separation." Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the guys who wrote and directed "Focus," presumably know it as well because one of their previous projects was the fairly brilliant (if tragically little-seen) con-man comedy "I Love You, Philip Morris." And yet, "Focus" stumbles so badly in regards to these two aspects that it never gets a chance to recover. While it is admirable for Smith to finally make the move from the hip young upstart roles that have defined the majority of his career (not counting his serious turns in films like the excellent "Ali," the awful "The Pursuit of Happyness" and that thing where he commits suicide-by-jellyfish) to play the kind of grown-up charmers usually essayed by George Clooney, he is just a little too slick for his own good here--he lacks the kind of gravitas that Clooney brings to even the most seemingly frivolous of roles in order to make them more relatable--and as a result, his anguish over whether to go for the money or the girl just never rings true. Adding to his unlikablity is that the screenplay fails to provide him with a mark who truly deserves to get conned. For the first half, Nicky and his group spend their time victimizing ordinary dopes whose only crime is not being careful enough to detect that their watches and wallets are being lifted. A little bit of this might have been okay but it goes on for so long and is done with such sneering relish that it becomes bothersome after a while. Eventually, the screenplay tries to rectify things by bringing on Garriga but his character and motivations are so maddeningly confusing that I for one was too busy trying to figure out what he hoped to accomplish to get behind the idea of scamming him for millions.

Those are the key flaws with "Focus" but there are plenty of other problems as well. Having managed to subvert the central tropes of the romantic comedy genre in a clever manner in their previous film, "Crazy Stupid Love," I was hoping that Ficarra and Requa might have been able to do the same thing here but the film is too often content to traffic in the same lazy cliches that you have seen in any number of lazy caper films along the lines of "The Sting II" (bet you forgot that existed) and its ilk. The cons are far too extravagantly conceived to be even remotely plausible, which is not necessarily a problem as long as they can come across as believable until after the end credits have finished rolling. Here, alas, they are so over-the-top ridiculous that all you can really do is sit in your seat and check off all the bits that just don't add up. Perhaps realizing that things weren't exactly jake, Ficarra and Requa then try to throw a number of increasingly desperate twists to throw viewers off their guard but all they do is further alienate them, leading to a climax so ludicrous that it practically dares you to say "Oh come on!"

To give it a little bit of due, "Focus" is slickly made and as Will Smith vehicles go, it is slightly more tolerable than the stuff that he has been cranking out in the last few years. The best thing about it, though, is the presence of Margot Robbie as Jess. You may recall Robbie as the blonde who came virtually out of nowhere (okay, Australia) and more than held her own as Leonardo DiCaprio's trophy wife in the epic testosterone-fest "The Wolf of Wall Street." Here, her character doesn't have much to do and the age difference between her and Smith, while perhaps not of Michael Douglas proportions, is just enough to seem a bit suspect at times but she has enough charm and personality (in addition to the giggity-giggity factor that cannot be denied) to make things at least slightly interesting whenever she is on the screen. She pretty much steals the focus of "Focus" away from its nominal star attraction without even trying--too bad for her that in the end, it is little more than petty theft.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26884&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/26/15 15:25:02
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3/01/15 Bob Dog Could have been so much better... 4 stars
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  27-Feb-2015 (R)
  DVD: 02-Jun-2015


  DVD: 02-Jun-2015

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