Thursday, June 4, 2015

"Focus": A Film Without Focus

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The con artist film and the romance film are very disparate genres, and that’s for a generally good reason.  While both genres are founded on the charisma and sexual appeal of their leads, the romance film is founded on the budding relationship of two people, how the two grow together and trust one another.  The con artist flick, on the other hand, is all about betraying the audience’s trust, spinning curveballs and half-truths in order to provide an engaging roller coaster of a plot.  These diametrically opposed film philosophies have been meshed before to make romantic con films, but Focus never quite seems to get beyond this crucial problem.

Enter Nicky (Will Smith), a seasoned con man.  After being ineffectually held-up by wannabe grifter Jess (Margot Robbie), Nicky decides to take her under his wing and guide her in the true art of thievery.  To go further into plot points would spoil many of the film’s twists, so for the folks who wish to see the film, I won’t go any further.  However, the film does a decent job at entertaining with several key scenes, including an extended gambling sequence with B.D. Wong as an eccentric businessman and an out-of-the-blue cut to an extremely minor character that leads to major ramifications.

However, despite these glimmers of cinematic taste, Focus never really comes into focus.  The romantic and con artist threads of the plot continually stumble over one another, meaning that the romance is never entirely believable and the ultimate reveal of the film’s long con is extremely underwhelming as the romance is underutilized.  It doesn’t help that the attempt to be both genres at once means that the film must simultaneously introduce the audience to the dynamics and intricacies of con work while developing a relationship between the two leads.  The film manages to do both, but only in the shallowest of ways, shifting back and forth between wanting us to believe what we’re seeing for the sake of fooling us and wanting us to believe because the characters’ emotions are, in fact, real.

And this isn’t without effort on the performers’ part either.  Robbie plays Jess with the right mix of naïveté and cunning to make her an engaging protégé to Smith’s smooth-talking and witty Nicky.  Yet, the film doesn’t give the characters enough screentime with one another where there isn’t a con going on, starving their supposed relationship of the witty repartee and genuine interaction necessary in order to make it believable.  Instead, the film tries to achieve this objective through their shared conning experience, which only left me waiting for a shoe-drop twist that would never come.

So while there are elements of Focus that I found quite entertaining, I can’t really recommend it.  There are some moments that truly made me wish they were part of a better film, and those moments may be enough for some people to find the experience worth it, but I personally found the film alternately boring and unfulfilling.  The big twist ending will certainly leave you underwhelmed, and you’ll likely forget all about it the next day.   I know I will.

What genre blends do you think work best?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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