Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Focus (2015)

The Little Blind Mouse ("When You Knew That It was Over, You Were Suddenly Aware...)
"...And Then the Girl Walked In" ("That the Autumn Leaves Were Turning to the Color of Her Hair")

Round, like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning
Running rings around the moon.
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple turning silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.

Man, Focus is derivative. The whole Man/Woman/ Con Game story is rather done to death. Name your favorite: The Lady Eve? To Catch a ThiefOut of Sight? You could so far as the recent entry into The National Film Registry, Unmasked made back in 1917 and the conceit of a love story and "The War Between Men and Women" embedded in a con-artist plot. The one that film-makers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who made Crazy, Stupid Love and I Love You, Phillip Morris and wrote Bad Santa, and are the reasons I wanted to see this one, despite some dismal reviews) seem to be mindful of is The Thomas Crown Affair (the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway original, not the Pierce Brosnan-Rene Russo re-tread) as they use "The Windmills of Your Mind" in the End Credits.

But, it's one of those movies that you have to pay really close attention to—focused, if you will, for the movie sleight-of-hand, the hidden signals, the "tell's," of what's going on under the surface, or else you could be conned as easily as one of the movie's marks. At the end, you still feel a bit conned, if only because one (actually, two) of the characters who should be better at all this, isn't...or as much as you'd like them to be.

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith in fine form) is a well-established grifter, the third generation leader in a well-organized network of stingers, who don't go in for the long con, as much as going for volume—they find a public event with a lot of people in unfamiliar territory—a convention, say, or the Super-Bowl, and take the high-rollers and do 
some rolling of their own. Nicky is about to do some real-estate investing for a future base of operations when he has a chance encounter with Jess (Margot Robbie, in fine form also)—it's a "meet-cute" in a con-artist kind of way where he rescues her from a lothario by following her lead and posing as her date to lose the guy.  
One thing leads to another, one drink leads to another, but to reveal the outcome of the "meet-cute" would be telling. Let's just say that Jess is a con woman in training and lousy at it ("You SUCK!" is how Nicky puts it) and wants to learn. Nicky makes a good teacher, but a lousy mentor, warning about how "the work" requires no heart, citing as an example "The Toledo Panic Button" (totally fictitious) where if the con is "blown," you shoot your partner (please see The Sting) in order to prove your loyalty to your mark to preserve the con.  
"This is a game of focus," he explains. "Dabblers get killed."  

And distraction is the name of the game. "Your look is the spotlight," he says when demonstrating a "lift" "and we dance in the dark."

Those who can't do, teach (those who can't teach, teach gym). Jess is recruited ("Congratulations" says his right-hand man Horst—Brennan Brown, who's terrific—"you're a criminal..."). On a street in the French Quarter in N'Orleans, she's put through her paces, playing the distraction, doing snatch-and-grabs and fast hand-offs while Nicky observes admiringly from a balcony. 
"Congratulations, you're a criminal..."
Jess is a fast study—much better at pick-pocketing than being simply the distraction. She picks it up so fast and with such skill—going from "0" to "60" in one fast-edited sequence—that I kept expecting the writer-film-makers to do something with that (a hidden past, an unnatural deftness, a secret save, some-thing) making it a key element in a change-up that would throw the audience off the course of what looked to be a pretty standard romance with a little larceny and lying mixed in with it. No such luck. Ficarra and Requa are clever guys, but they do Robbie (or the audience) no favors here. Things proceed along with not much growth in her character, relegating it to "girl-friend" status. 
Smith's Nicky, has the big character arc, but not much of one. After the "Training of Jess" section, the movie goes to the next section, set three years later where Nicky is negotiating a scam with race-car driver/billionaire pretty-boy Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to bilk a competitor (Robert Taylor) into buying a software system to improve his cars' performance—Nicky's going to pose as a "disgruntled employee" of Garriga's who wants revenge on his fictionally former employer by selling the "secret" of his race-cars to his competitor for a huge sum and then remotely disabling it once he's blown the scene. To set up the scam, Nicky and Rafael will get in a heated fight in a public setting—a big swanky affair Garriga is throwing for all the racing teams of an upcoming race.  Things are going very well...
"And then the girl walked in..."
"And then the girl walked in..." as Nicky's co-conspirator Farhad (Adrian Martinez, who is also terrific) grouses at him. Yup, coincidence of coincidences, Jess is at the party, making her entrance from Garriga's upstairs and attaching herself to his arm. This so unnerves Nicky that he carries the act a bit too far, and oversells the antagonism to be displayed between the two men. Jess explains that she's with Garriga now, giving up her pick-pocketing ways and wanting to have nothing to do with Nicky after how everything ended in New Orleans (I can't give too much away here).
The two then start a subtle dance of "He Said/She Said/He Feels/She Feels" in which you're not exactly sure who's conning whom, but for awhile it looks like Nicky might be getting some kind of comeuppance from his former protege, with the added threat that he's being watched like a grizzled Hawk by Garriga's security man Owens (Gerald McRaney, who is also damned terrific*), who suspects that Nicky, their con-man, might actually be a con-man and betray them. Pretty soon, Nicky is forgetting his own lessons, upping the stakes for not only the gain, but the girl, too.
Jess observes Nicky observing.
The way the movie (and the con) play out, it's clear that Smith is the guy in charge, both in front of and behind the camera, as his character, whatever his motivations, knows everything that's going on, and the rest of the characters (and the audience) are left dancing in the dark (although it's more like a lead-footed shuffle than a dance). One wishes that there was enough trust in the material and the cast playing it that there was more for one of the major characters (and the audience) to do than merely play "the blind little mouse" (as it's called in the film)—left in the dark until you're not. There could have been another dimension, a character complication, maybe a lingering and practical doubt or edge, even some growth of other characters that could have thrown a little more sand in the film, making it a bit more rich than being just a vanity project for Will Smith (and the movie does play to his strengths and considerable charm). But, ultimately, that's what the movie amounts to, and that is disappointing, if not exactly a con-job.

What we are left with is that, at least, the movie is relatively free of inconsistency** and plays by its own self-imposed rules even while it's cheating. One goes back through the movie looking for holes with the new-found knowledge of how it's been resolved—and there are instances, that can be explained away by character, as opposed to function. Except for a little movie-subterfuge here and there, the logic presented is solid, as the images unwind like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.

* McRaney is so good that this lower-waged character actor manages to draw attention even from his highly-paid co-star (in much the same way that Darren McGavin completely overshadowed Robert Redford in their scenes together in The Natural).

** Okay, one thing: how does Garriga's driver find Nicky—out of the streets of Buenos Aries, how does he find the one Nicky is using to escape to stop him. Is Nicky's car "bugged?"  Is someone else?  

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