The late director Howard Hawks defined a great movie as having three great scenes and no bad scenes.
By Noah Gittell
The late director Howard Hawks defined a great movie as having three great scenes and no bad scenes. I thought of this while watching the new con artist movie “Focus,” which has one great scene and about 70 terrible ones.
The great one comes almost halfway through. Nicky (Will Smith), a genius con artist, has just pulled off a big job, and has taken his winnings and his girlfriend to watch the Super Bowl from a private box that they share with other wealthy fans. He engages in a series of escalating bets with an eccentric millionaire (B.D. Wong) that threatens to not only cost him his winnings, but also bankrupt him completely. Nicky keeps losing, but he can’t stop betting, and the tension builds to an almost unbearable point.
Of course, as an audience member, we know a reveal is coming. That’s what con artist movies do. There are so many that they practically have formed their own genre, and it’s easy to see why Hollywood loves them so much. A great con relies on misdirection, and movies are uniquely positioned to lead an audience astray. In fact, that’s why we love the movies — for the entertaining lie.
But the conventions of the genre are so well known at this point it is hard to pull off the surprise. You know every con artist movie will have a couple of big set pieces in which important aspects of the con are revealed. It has become too predictable, but what can still make a con artist movie work is set of strong, sympathetic characters to take your attention away from where the real work is being done. Think Redford and Newman in “The Sting,” or even Gene Hackman in “Heist.” A great con movie needs a great con artist, and “Focus” doesn’t have one.
Nicky and Jess (Margot Robbie) are attractive, charming, and brilliant, but they are never more than their jobs. They meet when Jess, a small-time crook, foolishly tries to pull a scam on him. It’s a little like trying to beat Roger Federer at tennis. Nicky sees the con coming from a mile away, but he’s attracted to her gumption (perhaps also her looks), and he decides to brings her along on his next big job, a devilishly constructed con in New Orleans that leads him to that fateful Super Bowl.
After that scene, the film steers a predictable course. Nicky drops Jess to the curb – the con artist code allows for no romantic entanglements, I guess – but they meet again three years later on a new job. They flirt heavily, while each tries to figure out what the other one is really up to. It’s not exactly subtle or surprising. “Focus” is ridden with clichés, although that’s not the problem; after all, the pleasure of genre is seeing what the filmmakers can do within the constructs of those conventions.
Every con artist movie succeeds because of a very basic premise: wish fulfillment. The audience really just wants to see what it’s like to be smart, free, and exceedingly wealthy, and in this regard, “Focus” measures up. It maintains a sleek, sexy style and employs exotic, urban locations like Buenos Aires to sell the audience on the merits of the con artist life. Nicky stays in the nicest hotels, wears the nicest clothes, and hangs out with the most beautiful women.
But Nicky and Jess are so poorly drawn that they never keep our attention off the con. The film outlines their characters through shamelessly underwritten exposition. With their winning charisma and airtight chemistry, Smith and Robbie are fun to watch, but no actor can draw attention away from a script this shoddy. And so the fault of “Focus” lies not with its stars but with the characters written for them. At least, it pulls off one successful con: It may leave you wondering who stole your time and the price of your ticket.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue