Look No Further: It’s All in ‘Focus’

My problem is that if I tell you how much I loved the movie Focus, and do it with the enthusiasm it deserves, you’re going to think that I’m a PR hack on the film’s payroll. So let’s start at the beginning and I swear I’ll try to keep the delirious adjectives to a minimum. (But I see I’ve already transgressed with the word “delirious.”)

Anyway: I’ve been heard to moan on more than one occasion that nobody makes adult movies anymore. And no, I don’t mean those kind, you perv. I’m talking about movies made by grown-ups about grown-ups for grown-ups; not CGI orgies, or bubble-headed rom-coms, or anything with the names Apatow, Ferrell, or Sandler attached.

I miss the days when Hollywood regularly churned out entertainments which were intelligent (but not aggressively so), witty (without straining) and, above all, featured a plot that was actually, well, plot-full. You know, a structured, coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end … rather than a series of set pieces unsupported by either reality or reason.

I’m almost personally offended by sloppy, lazy writing, and usually as I’m settling into my seat at the local heca-deca-megaplex I whisper a silent prayer: “Dear God, please don’t let this be the kind of movie that makes me want to pull a plastic dry cleaning bag over my head.”

Considering all the nasty things I’ve said about Him over the years, you might be surprised to learn that, with Focus, God has actually answered my prayer.

How the Movie Reels You In (Spoiler-Free Version!)

Jess (Margot Robbie) is the girl with the touch, puttin' it here on Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

Jess (Margot Robbie) is the girl with the touch, puttin’ it here on Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

One of my favorite genres is caper pictures. As suggested above I’m a sucker for plot, and I love a film about con artists finding and roping in a mark, following the twists and turns of the con and then marveling at the sting at the end. If the movie also happens to be funny and stylish, then … well, then life is golden. And out of nowhere comes this movie called Focus, starring Will Smith, about a renowned con man who trains (and falls in love with) a woman—only to come up against her years later, after he’s dumped her.

The big problem here is that I actually can’t tell you what the film is about. There are a number of brilliant reveals and reversals and I absolutely don’t want to spoil a single one.

So let me give you a summary of my own reactions: It was only a few minutes in and already I was noticing sophisticated, knowing dialogue, seemingly off-hand but loaded with meaning. The droll and slightly sarcastic worldview expressed by Smith, and by Margot Robbie playing the love interest, reminded me of Ernest Lehman’s legendary script for North by Northwest. I was suddenly not slouching quite so much in my seat and wondering if writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa could sustain this level of urbanity. “Nah,” I thought, “this thing is going to flame out.”

But it just kept getting better. The plot begins to kick in, a few quirky, nicely-detailed supporting players show up, and it’s with considerable enjoyment that we watch Smith, Robbie and the crew of con artists ply their trade on the unsuspecting tourists who have descended on New Orleans for a Super Bowl. (Apparently these big national sports events are magnets for charlatans.)

The Spins, the Twists …

The movie never jumps the shark but it features a few, including this guy (B.D. Wong as Liyuan).

The movie never jumps the shark, it just shows you how they hunt: B.D. Wong as Liyuan.

At this point I was sitting upright totally engrossed in the story … and then the movie’s facile tone thickened and slowed for a more intensely focused scene. I can’t tell you what happens, but it features B.D. Wong as a truly loathsome business man. The set piece starts slowly, and then with almost no detectable shift you find you’ve been landed in a very high stakes moment; you really don’t realize it until you’re in the middle of it. The non-stop chattering audience with whom I saw the movie had actually shut their big, fat gobs, because Ficarra and Requa had stealthily ratcheted the tension up to the roof.

And here the film seemed to falter. Well, maybe that’s the wrong word … the movie felt like it was switching gears and heading in a different, sadly predictable, direction. I was a little crestfallen, but the writing had been so good up to this point I figured that even if Ficarra and Requa were going to rehash the same old Hollywood tropes, at least they’ll do it with plenty of smarts.

And guess what? They got me! I was completely wrong in my smug assumptions. Ficarra and Requa had deliberately misled the audience to deliver an amazing cinematic punch … which I fell for hook, line and sinker. Something that had been hidden clearly in plain view was now screamingly obvious and I was an idiot for not seeing it. They’d roped me in, worked a con on me and stung me at the end—and the movie was not a third of the way through yet.

Bringing It Home

I sat through the rest of this film with the biggest, most idiotic smile plastered on my face, loving every single twist and turn Ficarra and Requa made. (And, for the record, they managed to get me two more times before the end.)

What’s so amazing about what they’ve done is that everything makes sense. There are no convenient surprises or blurry logic—the film’s a puzzle and these two men have clearly laid out all the pieces for you to assemble. Then, when you can’t (and believe me, you can’t), they matter-of-factly put the whole thing back together right in front of your face.

This movie was so good that I didn’t even mind the presence of Will Smith, an actor I’ve never really be able to warm to. This movie is so good, in fact, that I willingly overlooked the one tired Hollywood trope Ficarra and Requa have recycled—the age difference between the male and female leads. Smith is twice Robbie’s age. (He’s 46, she’s 24.) I usually find that rather creepy—switch the genders but use the same birth years and imagine Deborah Messing romancing Liam Hemsworth—but I’m giving that a pass … and partly because Robbie is so fabulous in her role.

You, like me, are going to want to see Focus several times, so you better go get started.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based writer and critic.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.