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Focus ••

2015_Focus_film_posterStarring:Will SmithMargot RobbieRodrigo Santoro
Director:Glenn FicarraJohn Requa
Screenplay:Glenn FicarraJohn Requa
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: February 27, 2015


reel-2 cast-2 (anti-hero) villain-2

Scott, it’s time to focus our attention on this week’s movie.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

There are definitely “pros” and “cons” in Focus. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Nicky Spurgen (Will Smith) who is approached by a beautiful young woman, Jess Barnet (Margot Robbie), who entices him to her hotel room. They are just getting “friendly” when Jess’s boyfriend comes in and threatens to shoot Nicky. Nicky already knows this is a con-game and calls the two out. He leaves them with the advice to focus on their game. A few days later, Jess seeks out Nicky and asks him to teach her the finer points of the con.

Nicky takes Jess to New Orleans where the Super Bowl is being played. Jess undergoes training to become a better con artist and sees Nicky’’s entire huge operation geared toward conning tens of thousands of Super Bowl fans. Nicky and Jess appear to be forming a romantic relationship, but we also learn that Nicky’s father warned him about getting close to other con artists. At the Super Bowl, Nicky cons billionaire Liyuan Tse (BD Wong) and then aftward breaks up with Nicky. Three years later, in Buenos Aires, Nicky meets up with Jess again while trying to con race car driver Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

Scott, Focus reminds me of a movie from the 70s with James Coburn called “Harry In Your Pocket.”  Again, it’s the story of a seasoned con man teaching the tricks of the con to a younger and more beautiful student.  Focus actually feels like two movies in one – or maybe two episodes from a mini-series. Once we get past the part where they con the guy at the Super Bowl, we enter the second episode of the movie where we have nearly a whole new cast. The race car episode took a long time to set up and really dragged the movie down. It took at least half an hour to restart the second half of the film and I lost my interest.

I lost interest when I realized early in the movie that this was one of those stories in which the audience is constantly being set up to believe one thing, only to discover that something else is actually going on. Once you realize that nothing you see can be trusted, the movie quickly loses its appeal. It’s a tired formula we’ve seen many times since The Sting almost fifty years ago.

To be sure, Will Smith fans should enjoy Focus. Smith does an admirable job of fooling other people over and over again, including the beautiful Jess who is a lot more gullible and trusting than the scores of people whom she cons. The psychology of this movie doesn’t ring true for me. The hyper-elaborate set-up of Liyuan Tse is based on “priming” Tse to choose the most conspicuous man on the football field — an overly obvious choice that a man as smart as Tse would never, ever make. Because it makes for a cute story and so we’re supposed to swallow it.

When we analyze the hero structure of this movie, it’s clear that Nicky is an anti-hero. He makes his living on other people’s wealth. He’s a parasite. But, he is a nice looking and charming parasite, so we’re happy to follow him and even root for him to win. He’s also a beneficent mentor to Jess. And again, since he’s teaching her the dark art of manipulation and theft, he’s a dark mentor. We see glimmers of goodness in him as he clearly has an affection for Nicky that goes beyond appreciating her obvious good looks. He cares so much for her, in fact, that he ditches her at the Super Bowl because… well, “I’m bad news, baby.”

Yes, Nicky is bad and remains bad throughout the movie. There is no change or growth in his character, and so as an audience we aren’t inspired by him evolving into something good or repulsed by him devolving into something bad. He’s just a con man from start to finish. When Nicky got his comeuppance at the end, I didn’t have any emotional reaction at all because he’s basically a sleazy guy who got conned by another sleazy guy.

This is a movie about villains, which means that the oppositional characters can either be law enforcement or they can be other competing villains. In the case of Focus, all the oppositional characters are villains who are portrayed as more villainous than Nicky and Jess. I guess that means we should be rooting for Nicky and Jess to prevail in their get-rich schemes, but I just couldn’t generate any feeling of support for them. Jess tugged at my heartstrings a bit, but that’s probably because she is drop-dead gorgeous and probably deserved better than to hang out with Nicky and his gang of losers.

That’s a keen observation, Scott. We’ll have to add that to our anti-hero model. The rest of the cast are pretty bland fare. There’s the overweight guy who is Nicky’s henchman. He does Nicky’s dirty work when Nicky can’t be bothered. We call this the Mastermind/Henchman pattern. There’s his crew of pickpockets working the Super Bowl to make off with unsuspecting vacationer’s wallets. In Volume 2 of “Reel Heroes” we call these characters “minions.” They’re a sea of nameless, faceless characters who all work in unison to the anti-hero’s (or villain’s) goals.

I didn’t dislike Focus but I didn’t really enjoy it, either. It held my attention for the most part, thanks to the star power and charisma of Will Smith and the beauty of Margot Robbie. But there isn’t much substance to Focus, unless you count the trickery of one con after another as substance. True, some of the deceptions are momentarily interesting but this isn’t a movie with much heft to it. I can only award Focus 2 Reels out of 5.

As you’ve noted, Greg, the character of Nicky is an anti-hero who remains exactly the same character from start to finish. He doesn’t grow the way we want our heroes to grow in the movies, and in fact we can be sure that Nicky’s the type of guy who will forever be a criminal. Granted, he is smart, charismatic, and likeable, but he’s not someone I could root for, and his downfall at the film’s end didn’t move me emotionally one single bit. The hero story is pretty non-existent but because Smith is a talented actor with a powerful screen presence, I’ll be kind and give Nicky 2 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast is deserving of some praise. I enjoyed watching the comic relief in the character of Farhad (Adrian Martinez), and I thought that B.D. Wong played a wonderfully manic gambling addict at the Super Bowl. The evil race car drivers were living stereotypes of macho, fuel-injected anger, but their unidimensionality was offset by Margot Robbie’s charm, intelligence, and pizzazz. The surprising appearance of Nicky’s frenetic dad at the end added an amusing wrinkle of depth to the cast as well. Overall, I’ll give the supporting cast a rating of 3 out of 5.

 Movie: reel-2 Anti-Hero: villain-2 Cast: cast-3

Wow, it looks like the Margot Robbie fan club is +1!

Focus wasn’t a terrible film, but it was decidedly slow in places. As you point out, Scott, it is difficult to root for the anti-hero when he is so corrupt. I look to other classic films like Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for examples of how to create lovable anti-heroes. Although, in those films, I think the anti-heroes ended up dead. I also award 2 out of 5 Reels.

Nicky is a boring anti-hero. Because he doesn’t become a better person at the end of the film than at the beginning, there is a possibility of a sequel. Maybe next year we’ll get to see Refocus. I give Nicky just 2 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast is tired and lazy. While Jess is nice to look at, there are no surprises, no one stands out, and no new territory is exposed. I have to disagree with you here, Scott. I score just 1 out of 5 for the supporting cast.

 Movie: reel-2 Anti-Hero: villain-2 Cast: cast-1

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