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New Release Review - Focus

A successful con artist takes a young woman under his wing.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney


If ever an actor was born to play a con man, it's Will Smith. Few stars of his generation have the charisma level of the former Fresh Prince, so it's easy to believe Smith could have employed his charm in more nefarious ways had the acting lark not worked out. He plays a con trick of sorts on audiences with his latest movie, fooling us, to a point, into believing we're watching a movie that's far better than it really is. Smith disarms us with his million dollar smile and easygoing ways to such a degree that it's only when the curtain is pulled on the first act that we realise we're actually watching a load of old cobblers.
Smith is Nicky Spurgeon, a con man who escaped a tough upbringing to become one of the world's finest proponents of his chosen profession. Nicky hooks up with Jess (Robbie), a wannabe con artist, because he "likes boobs", and takes her under his wing, teaching her the murky ways of his trade. After pulling off a ridiculously far-fetched 'big score' at a football game, Nicky pays off Jess, despite having led her to believe a budding romance was on the cards. A few years later, Nicky is in Buenos Aires working on potentially the biggest con of his life when the spurned Jess turns up, throwing a spanner in the works.
The apogee of the con artist genre is the 1973 masterpiece The Sting, a movie that's something of a con itself, as once you break down its plot it becomes nonsensical. The beauty of The Sting is that it's structured in such a fashion as to prevent you from seeing its flaws while you're actually watching the movie. That's not the case with Focus, which goes out of its way to ensure you see its strings. Real-life sleight-of-hand artist Apollo Robbins was hired by the filmmakers to train Smith and Robbie in his tricks, but all the sleight-of-hand moves are pulled off through editing, which denies us the thrill of seeing a master at work. 
The movie features two elaborate 'long cons', neither of which make a lick of sense when the perpetrators explain to us how they were executed. That's the biggest problem with Focus; it's a movie in which practically every line of dialogue is a piece of exposition, the con artist equivalent of one of those 'Behind the Magic' TV specials. Except, of course, here the explanations don't hold up to scrutiny.
There are two notable takeaways from Focus. The first is how it commendably features an inter-racial relationship without ever feeling the need to bring this fact to our attention or make it a plot element. The second is that it features 'Sympathy for the Devil', one of the most over employed rock anthems in modern cinema, but actually comes with a (bonkers) explanation for its use. Remove these two elements and you're left with a movie that treats its audience in particularly patronising fashion, saved from turkey status by the presence of one of the few genuine movie stars Hollywood can boast today.




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