The Grift of Love: Ficarra & Requa’s Perfunctory Take on the Art of the Con
Those hoping for a scintillating update on the con-artist sub-genre will most likely be sorely disappointed with the latest film from directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Focus (not to be confused with the Arthur Miller novel that was made into a chilling film version with Laura Dern and William H. Macy, 2001), with displays artistry that feels more akin to watching a children’s magic show with all those standardly familiar tricks. There may not be a rabbit pulled out of a hat, but its romantic inclination seems uprooted from a similar realm. There is a certain degree of pizzazz, however, thanks mostly to rare glimpses of playful, organically achieved chemistry courtesy of its charming leading lady, but as much as the film can be lauded for nimbly avoiding mention of its interracial romance (still rare in studio fare, arguably due to the limited number of ‘profitable’ black celebrities ‘working’ at any given time), the age difference between its leads is distracting. Though Will Smith is remarkably well preserved and edging into the suavely mature chapter of his career, his last rated R film was Bad Boys II in 2003, when co-star Margot Robbie was a pre-teen. A large degree of the film’s success depends on the driving force of their mutual attraction and passion. Try as they might, no one successfully pulls that ruse over on the audience.
Both dining in an upscale Manhattan restaurant, Jess (Robbie) sees Nicky (Smith) seated alone, and uses him to escape a drunken suitor at the bar. They talk, they flirt, and they go back to her room in the hotel connected to the restaurant, where we find Jess trying to make a mark out of Nicky. However, it turns out Nicky is a professional, third generation con-artist, following in the famed footsteps of his grandfather and father. So, she’s unable to fleece Nicky, but there aren’t exactly any hard feelings between them. In fact, they keep the flame alive and continue their flirtations, as Jess aims to convince Nicky to take her under his criminal wing. She proves to be adept at pick-pocketing and so he involves her in a lucrative scheme in New Orleans, whereby a group of criminals prey on the unwitting tourists. A tangential sequence involving a wealthy Chinese businessman (BD Wong) momentarily distracts us before it reveals something else about Nicky’s personality and the art of the con. After abandoning Jess in New Orleans, we’re whisked away three years into the future, to the auto racing world of Buenos Aires. Nicky has been employed by a greedy team owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) so that he can throw off the other teams and secure his own team a definite win. Garriga’s right hand man, Owens (Gerald McRaney) seems incredibly suspicious of Nicky, but things get tricky when Nicky discovers that Jess is Garriga’s longtime girlfriend.
The set-up of Focus feels like a crash course in pick pocketing, a sort of Conning the Oblivious 101. As its title suggests, the diverting of one’s focus is what makes them an easy mark, and a dazzling array of techniques are on hand. Robbie flounces magically through a crowd in New Orleans, making thefts left and right, as nimble as a ballet dancer. It’s unfortunate that the film isn’t able to succeed with a similar technique. It doesn’t divert our attention so much as purposefully hide details for a handful of twists in the final act. In essence, the audience is merely in the same position as Robbie’s ‘blind mouse.’ This would seem to make everything about Focus extremely banal on re-watch.
Con artists have long been a beloved cinema staple, but Focus is hardly the romantic equivalent of such genre classics as The Sting, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, or even Soderbergh’s celebrated Ocean’s trilogy. Shying away from the serious dangers associated with the profession (as in a few famed Mamet titles or Frears’ excellent The Grifters), Ficarra and Requa strike into a glossy middle ground, much like The Brothers Bloom. Robbie’s Jess gets criticized for not elevating beyond a pickpocket status, but then, neither does Focus—its more elaborate ruses are silly, illogical, and overly complicated with a clear intention on cheaply fooling the audience in order to avoid predictability.
Focus has the same one-dimensional touch as Ficarra and Requa’s last feature, Crazy, Stupid Love (2011), and one wonders where the daring, envelope pushing team behind I Love You Phillip Morris (2010) and Bad Santa (2003) have disappeared to. As Smith’s first lead role since the debacle of After Earth (not to mention that ill-conceived supporting turn in A Winter’s Tale), perhaps more is riding on the success of this film than there should be.
As it stands, the film feels more like a prologue for more anticipated pairings from its cast and crew, as Robbie will be starring in the directors’ next feature Fun House, as well as starring alongside Smith once more next year in Suicide Squad. For a film whose tagline plaintively urges never to lose it, Focus is a lot more bleary than it should be.