Sunday, 1 March 2015
Pros and cons: "Focus"
The ho-hum caper flick Focus is notable solely for how close movie-biz business sits to its moderately polished surface. You can spot immediately how it came about, for one: when American Hustle went past a certain figure at the box-office, the cry must have gone out from a dozen executives' offices for scripts in a broadly similar vein, and the partnership of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) just so happened to have one in circulation. At the casting stage, recruiting Will Smith - a proven box-office performer left kicking his heels in recent years - must have boosted everybody's expectations; he's been packaged with what the industry likes to describe as "an exciting up-and-comer" in Margot Robbie, the Australian whose full-frontal turn as the trophy wife in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street turned her into an overnight postergirl for the New Corporate Hollywood.
The pair's initial onscreen encounters - Smith's Nicky teaching Robbie's Jess the finer points of pickpocketing - promise something more intimate than the usual big shakedowns, but this isn't enough for Focus, which ultimately wants to dazzle us with its bling, and so matters turn increasingly impersonal, with not even the knowing wit of Soderbergh's similarly globetrotting Ocean's series to redeem it. There is, however, something revealing about its methodology: unintentionally, the film becomes a metaphor for how the American film industry now operates. Big dog Nicky recruits fresh-off-the-bus orphan Nicky to serve among his vast staff of pocket-pickers; these minions are employed to create loud distractions in public places - do that over there, Focus proposes, and the contents of a hundred wallets can be snaffled over here without anybody noticing. "We're in the volume business," Nicky states, in the manner of a CEO announcing his upcoming slate of comic-book tie-ins. "It's safer that way."
From the off, this guy's coining it in, which makes him an unlikely underdog for us to cheer on. Ficarra and Requa must have had the same thought (or script note), which is why they insert an early non-sequitur in which Nicky is challenged to a high-stakes card game within the lofty reaches of the Houston Astrodome's executive boxes by an Asian gambler (B.D. Wong, seizing this moment to liven the film up); the insidious implication, in a film hardly short on them, is that we're meant to want Nicky to swat this expansionist upstart - money only has true value in all-American hands, after all. Pity, then, that this achieved, the heroic Nicky's very next act is to ditch Jess in the back of a limo, something to do with one of those yawnsome professional credos about never getting attached.
The second half staggers on to deliver a lesson about the dangers of brand expansion, for Nicky has grown tired of watching ballgames from the VIP seats, and really wants a piece of the action himself - in this case, influencing the outcome of the Brazilian Grand Prix, a fix that will bring him into conflict with the team boss (Rodrigo Santoro) who just so happens to be wooing Jess. We might have wondered whether Jess has overtaken her former mentor on this one, but Focus is playing such a flatly literal con game that this becomes a moot point. Where American Hustle proved unexpectedly profound - in the way only a pop entertainment can be - about the ways we delude and disguise ourselves in love, Focus's interests run to no deeper matters than sports betting, fast cars, portfolio management, password protection, and the interiors of luxury hotels. If this were a Tinder profile, you'd be swiping left very quickly.
Its appeal is further diminished by the writer-directors' view of Jess as broadly analogous to the dollar bills that keep popping up in Robbie's cash-register eyes: Nicky palms her away, she comes back to him tenfold, he uses her to obtain what he needs. The character feels more like an investment opportunity than any identifiable, flesh-and-blood human being, but then the romance with which Ficarra and Requa hope to sweep the audience along is really no more than a cash proposition: one in which a rich middle-aged racefixer repeatedly seduces a pliable young blonde with vast displays of material wealth. (Swoon!) You can see why the executives reading this script might buy it, but everything else about Focus - right through to its utterly garbled denouement, in which we can't even trust the trajectory of a bullet - depends for its success on those of us looking on being thoroughly mindless, suggestible suckers.
Focus is now playing in cinemas nationwide.