One of the worst clichés that appears in an alarmingly large number of movies is the “two kinds of people in this world” speech. In Focus, Will Smith’s suave con artist Nicky Spurgeon tells his protégé/part-time lover Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) his version of the done-to-death cliché: there are two types of people, hammers and nails.
Yet as I cringed at this clumsy line of dialogue in an otherwise witty and enjoyable screenplay, it left me thinking that (in Hollywood at least) there are only two types of movies that ever get attention: the supermassive blockbusters and the critically acclaimed awards-season darlings. Focus is a third kind of movie, the one not made to be seen by large audiences or to be appreciated as a work of art. It’s a money-making time waster, designed to be in one ear and out the other, taking enough box office money to explain its existence in the process. Focus is in no doubt forgettable, but it is ridiculously enjoyable while you’re watching it.
Focus doesn’t have a plot so much as a succession of entertaining set pieces. Con artist Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, who is fully back on “cocky charisma” form) meets Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) one night at a bar. She is a terrible con artist, who is running a trick to steal from him by taking him back to her hotel room and then getting interrupted by her alleged husband once the seduction begins. Naturally, Nicky sees through this, but instead of being taken down to size, Jess sees this as an opportunity to learn from the best.
Not long after, they take off to New Orleans to perform a succession of minor cons at an American football match. At this stage, a minor character informs them that there is “no big con where we can make enough money to never have to do this again” (I’m paraphrasing), which is screenwriter shorthand for “there’s not really a plot, just a bunch of set pieces involving con artists at work.”
As stylish as blockbusters come
As CGI gets more advanced and blockbusters become more epic in size, even the biggest Hollywood stars struggle to have a hit movie if it doesn’t contain loud explosions and special effects. In this regard, Focus seems to hark back to the golden age of cinema in the 40’s and 50’s, when audiences would pay to watch movies based on the star-power of the leads, regardless of the movie’s quality.
In fact, it’s the first movie I’ve seen recently that is really being sold on the A-listers, who are front and central in the cast. I’m not for a second suggesting that Will Smith and Margot Robbie (as enjoyable to watch as they are) are contemporary equivalents to Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn – but the movie is made in a way that highlights how glamorous its leads are in a way that I haven’t seen recently.
Fifty Shades of Grey may be proving that sex sells, but Focus is at least commendable in injecting a dose of good old fashioned glamour of the kind that seems to have been forgotten by contemporary Hollywood movies. Its globe-trotting plot also harks back to the pre-sixties era of cinema where many American films had scenes taking place internationally for no apparent reason. This was usually just to show off some worldwide spectacle to American audiences, as many Americans at that time didn’t own passports, but still wanted to see the world.
As you can probably guess, Focus is a film that is best enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level. If you take away the attractiveness of the leads, the dazzling locations, and the sheer ridiculous spectacle of the set pieces, it is very easy to be irritated by it.
Yet all that style can’t make up for a lack of substance
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have shown off a long standing obsession with con artists in their movies. Bad Santa, the cult Christmas classic they wrote the screenplay for, is all about two con artists who pose as Santa and his elf at a different mall every year in order to pull off a Christmas Eve heist. I Love you Phillip Morris, their directorial debut, is the biopic of an accidental con artist who eventually embraces his lawless lifestyle.
As well as being superior in quality, both of those movies differ from Focus due to the fact that they are comedies first and foremost. Focus has funny moments, but it is the first time the writer/directors have taken the con artist concept at face value and made it the driving force of the movie, making all attempts at humour an afterthought. Their other efforts have had humour to fall back on more prominently. By not making this primarily a comedy, they are practically begging for unfavourable comparisons to Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans movies (and to a certain extent, The Sting). The movie has style, but never goes out of its way to offer substance.
The narrative is problematic in that it also thinks it’s far more intelligent than it is. It’s no spoiler to point out that both Smith and Robbie’s con artists are playing each other in different ways as the story progresses, but this didn’t bother me as it is a tried-and-tested genre trope. What did bother me was the final fifteen minutes, when you could feel Ficarra and Requa’s screenplay going out of the way to deliver unexpected twists, for no other reason than just to deliver unexpected twists. It does a disservice to the rest of the film; you know that the movie is all style and no substance, but this highlights it to such an extent that you feel bad for enjoying the flashy nonsense that came before it.
Focus is a movie that is best enjoyed if you stumble across it on TV in a few years’ time. If you go see it at the cinema, expect nothing more than mindless spectacle that you’ll forget in the time it takes to walk to the exit. It’s not the worst con artist debacle I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen too many episodes of the BBC’s Hustle to know what a bad con job looks like), but it will probably never even register as a footnote when talking about the films it’s influenced by. It’s an empty experience, but to quote Woody Allen, “as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
Have you seen Focus and did you enjoy it? More importantly, does this mark a return to form for Will Smith?
Focus is in cinemas in the UK and US right now. All international release dates can be found here.
(top image source: Warner Bros. Pictures)