Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: Focus

by Adam Riske
Foc this movie.

I did not have a good time watching Focus. In fact, the movie left me annoyed. I think 10 percent of my displeasure with the experience had to do with the fact that I was seeing the movie on a lousy blind date but the majority was the movie’s fault. It’s a lethargic drag when it should have been breezy fun. A movie like this, about con-men (and women), can be a showcase for charismatic stars and directors with some bravado, but with Focus it never quite works despite the ingredients seemingly being there.

Full disclosure – I’m not the biggest fan of movies about con artists. Some, like Catch Me If You Can or Matchstick Men, really work because they are primarily character studies where you get to know (and even like) the flawed protagonists. It’s about them more than the con. But more often than not, con artist movies seem hell-bent on being clever above all else and it becomes a game between the audience and the filmmakers of who’s smarter. The audience wins if they figure out the con before the movie gets to the big reveal, while the director and writers (in an effort to surprise the audience) often cheat or include impossible scenarios in an attempt to win and make sure the audience doesn’t anticipate the surprises. Focus primarily fits in the latter category.
Nicky (Will Smith), an accomplished con man, takes amateur con artist Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing. The two become romantically involved but then later split when Nicky realizes that love and deception don’t go well together. The two bump into each other (coincidentally) years later and things get complicated as both are conducting cons of their own. Can the two reunite and pick up where they left off? Will it compromise their current jobs?

The reason most people will see Focus (like me) is because of the two lead actors – Will Smith and Margot Robbie. It’s competent but disappointing work by the pair. Smith, who I desperately want to see in a good movie again, has more to play and is closer to a three dimensional character than Robbie’s Jess. Nicky is a third-generation career con artist with a gambling problem and also a compulsive liar. With all that baggage, the character is a drag. Smith is an underrated dramatic actor but he can only do so much with such a wet noodle of a character. He has moments where he’s allowed to be charming, but surprisingly those actually work less than his serious moments. His cool guy act feels, maybe for the first time, outdated, like a relic of the 1990s than doesn’t have a place anymore.
Robbie, on the other hand, is fine but it’s not another step forward after her lively, funny debut in The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s not really her fault. Her character exists mostly in service to Smith’s and doesn’t stand alone as its own thing. You never understand why this woman would want to be a con artist in the first place. There’s a throwaway line towards the beginning that it was either be a con or a hooker, but that seems like bullshit since Jess is pretty together and I could believe she’d be successful doing a lot of different things. Their chemistry together, which is crucial for a movie like this to work, is lacking. Part of the problem is that their romance feels rushed and forced in the first act and the script doesn’t take the time needed for that relationship to develop. As a result, we don’t care about these characters and what happens to them later on and their romance seems to happen by default because they are the two most attractive people in the movie. Their romantic encounters feel like a watered down version of the George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez relationship in Out of Sight.

There’s one performance though that really drove me up the wall. It’s from Gerald McRaney (Major Dad) who plays one character’s bodyguard/enforcer of sorts. I don’t want to be unkind, but his performance bugged me on such a fundamental level that I have to comment on it. It’s just dreadful. I wanted to fast forward the movie every time he showed up. He’s given what is supposed to be colorful dialogue but his delivery is so stiff and ham-fisted that listening to him deliver it is like being hit in the ear with a bag of porcupines and lead pipes. It’s as if someone cast their dad, who’s never acted, and told him to improv being grumpy. OMG is it terrible.

Also pretty bad is the screenwriting. It’s the type of movie that tries to be funny but never lands a joke and consistently insults your intelligence. Some of the details of the cons are so far-fetched and coincidental that you would have to believe that elements A through Y would take place for the result Z to happen. I can buy imperfections after I watch a movie, but they shouldn’t be in such plain sight during my viewing experience. It’s annoying. There are also stupid details, like Smith’s team of con artists consisting of, like, 30 people for a heist that nets them $1.2 million. That’s $40K each? Doesn’t seem worth the effort to me. Also, wouldn’t you think it would be difficult to have to control that many disreputable people at one time?
The movie does have a couple of things going for it. First, it’s stylish and the tech credits are superb. It’s full of chic locations that are beautiful to look at and there’s always something pleasant to look at in the frame, which distracts you from how lame the movie is at times -- it's just tremendous work by the cinematographer (Xavier Grobet), production designer (Beth Mickle), art director (Kelly Curley), set decorator (Lisa K. Sessions) and costume designer (Danya Pink). Second, there’s a fantastic scene in the middle of the movie with the Smith and Robbie characters involved in an escalating series of prop bets at a Super Bowl-like event with a flamboyant gambler played by BD Wong. Wong practically walks away with the movie in this scene. The sequence is fun and suspenseful and could almost act as a short film separate from the rest of Focus since it, well, focuses on Nicky’s gambling instead of his con game. But true to the rest of this crappy movie, it shoots itself in the foot with a post-scene epilogue where it’s revealed how the events of that scene went down. As the boys said on their The Expendables 2 podcast, it’s a case of a beautiful woman taking off her dress only to turn around and show you her dick.

I wanted to have a good time at Focus. But instead of being fun, the movie is mostly just boring. The energy really sags in the second half, causing the 105 minute runtime to feel like 150 minutes. After I Love You Phillip Morris (which I liked), Crazy, Stupid, Love (which I didn’t) and now Focus, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are establishing themselves as being filmmakers interested in stories about people playing games or performing in their real lives. It’s an interesting through-line; I just wish I enjoyed their movies more. They should have more BD Wong in them.

15 comments:

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    1. I don't think she liked it much either.

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  2. This review perfectly sums up how I feel about this movie...even though I only saw the trailer...once.

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  3. Thanks for the review, Adam. I couldn't be more disinterested in seeing two of the most uninteresting actors around.

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    1. Watched it tonight - my original statement stands. Two of the most bland actors around. And the story? I need to watch Mamet's "House of Games" to rinse the supernatural ridiculousness out of my mouth. I finally got to see BD Wong curse though!!!

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  4. Dude this perfectly sums up my exact feelings about this movie. I also quite enjoyed the Super Bowl scene, which made me uncomfortable and tense, but you're right once it gets into the details it's like wait what?

    The second half annoyed the shit out of me and I just wanted it to finally end and tell me what was going on and by that time I didn't care anymore and the reveal is total garbage. I mean really really stupid. I also hated major dad and some of the dialogue spoken by him and that heavy set character really rubbed me the wrong way. It was vulgar but trying to be funny but it wasnt funny so it just came off as incredibly sleazy. I could feel the screenwriter thinking they were so clever with some of the bantery dialogue but most of it was very clunky and the parts that worked only worked because the 2 leads willed it to work.

    Also by the hundredth time I saw a wallet or necklace or some other item lifted off someone I got very bored and just wanted them to stop. But Margot Robbie... My dear god is there a more beautiful woman on this entire planet? She's so gorgeous it's distracting. Wish she actually had a character to play.

    One last thing theres a scene thats actually part of the trailer where one of the bad guys goes into a store buys a mouthguard and neckbrace and some other safety items just so he can protect himself while ramming his car at full speed into will smiths car stopping him from getting away. its like dude youre a professional, you couldnt figure out a less complicated way to stop them from getting away? you just fucked yourself and your car up with this elaborate plan of yours.

    Anyways great review as always sir. Sorry your date didn't go so well. Plenty of fish in the sea and all that.

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  5. It's disappointing to hear that about Gerald McRaney. I recently watched Deadwood and loved his performance in that.
    Then again, he was also in Red Tails.

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    1. "Simon and Simon" for life - F! "Major Dad".

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    2. What, no love for Jameson Parker? That dude's mustache owned "Prince of Darkness." ;-)

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    3. That was my first thought on hearing Major Dad sucked too, Chris - loved his performance as a quietly menacing psychopath in Deadwood.

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    4. Sol, I love how we grew to hate the guy and the show just ended.

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  6. I can never get past 20 year age gaps between leads..it just bothers me no end.

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    1. But what if the true love between the characters comes across? Like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam in "Emma" or Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in "The Omen"? I get the age difference yuck (though it happens a lot in the real world, though not as much as in movies), but when the actors and the script/director sells it well age differences are inconsequential. Just wish there were more Ashton Kutchers falling in love with Demi Moores (actors in real life as well as characters in movies and TV) to even out the huge imbalance now tilting toward the other side.

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  7. Yeah, in spite of whatever monstrous behaviour lead to him having kids like J&J, I'm rooting for Will Smith to be in a good movie as well. You know, like, Django Unchained or something like that (idiot!). I am not surprised this one's a flop - sorry your blind date was as well!

    And agreed: More Wong is always right!

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