You’ve got your lean cuisine and fatty, high-calorie meals, some nutritional and some less so, and then your salads and fruits and fine desserts, and finally the icing and sugar fizz and whipped cream. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa‘s Focus, a superficially alluring but dismissable February programmer about a couple of con artist thieves (Will Smith, Margot Robbie) with a marginal interest in sex when the greed impulse ebbs, is almost all sugar fizz. The lady I saw it with last night gave it a 4 out of 10 but at the same time insisted she had an okay time. There’s a place in the world, she believes, for gliding emptiness and sexy time-wasting.
I’ll tell you what there’s no place for, not in my head at least, and that’s a climactic scene in which…nope, not going there. But I almost did out of spite. I can at least tell you that the Focus finale (i.e. the last 15 minutes) delivers the exact opposite feeling you had when you experienced the finale of The Sting for the first time. Everyone in the theatre was silently going “They’re kidding, right? This is how they’re ending it?”
The game behind all con-artist movies is, of course, to try and fake the audience out, which is naturally difficult with everyone constantly looking for the card trick. And so you have to resort to extreme if not absurd bait-and-switch tactics that defy belief. The audience naturally assumes that Smith and Robbie are constantly lying or conning or hiding some key piece of information and that Ficarra and Rerqua are doing the same thing so nobody trusts anyone or anything. So why am I watching this damn thing?
Focus is basically selling two ideas. One, the life of a professional thief can be cool and smoothly attractive if that life is happening within the realm of phony Hollywood escapism, which of course isn’t serious escapism if the director-writers insist on reminding you how fake and fraudulent it is, which this film does in spades. And two, the relatively recent premise that U.S. moviegoers will pay to immerse themselves in this kind of emptiness if it’s a January, February or March release. They know Hollywood always saves the costliest escapism for the summer and the quality stuff for the fall and holiday periods, etc.
To me Focus is mainly an advertisement for wealth-porn lifestyles. Which is more or less what Fifty Shades of Grey was. The wealth-porn aesthetic is an atmospheric, quarter-inch-deep mood drug that has become the end-all and be-all among the clueless classes when they go on vacations and stay in Cancun or Vegas or wherever. Easily impressed, marginally educated, Taylor Swift-worshipping peons, I mean, who seem to want nothing more than to immerse themselves in faux-opulence to the exclusion of all other experiences and environments, and who wouldn’t know old-world class or gentility or a moment of quiet spiritual serenity if it snuck up and bit them in the ass.
The wealth-porn aesthetic is spreading like a virus across much of the culture these days. It has all but engulfed the travel industry. (When they travel to Mexico or the Greek islands or Phuket, faux-sophsticates want nothing more than to stay in the exact same kind of upscale McDonalds five-star hotels.) And it’s certainly defining cheap-gloss glamour rides like Focus. Somebody tell Dooley Wilson — the fundamental things no longer apply.
There are three main locations in Focus — New York, New Orleans and Buenos Aires. And they all feel pretty much the same. Okay, you’ll notice some atmospheric touches in the South American sections (Spanish-language store signs, a low-rent bar with an ancient TV showing a sports event) but it’s all about living flush and flash.
It’s also about the fact that I can’t relax with Will Smith. He’s such a con-artist actor in the first place, such a slick salesman. He walks into a room and right away my guard goes up. No way I’m suspending my disbelief. I started giving up on the guy after he made Independence Day. The last time I was half-engaged was when he costarred in Enemy of the State. And I have to say that Margot Robbie’s Wolf of Wall Street allure is fading after this and Z for Zachariah. I’m starting to realize that she doesn’t have a lot of moves.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy has written that Focus “is no Trouble in Paradise, House of Games or The Grifters.” It’s also no Pickpocket but the trailers have been assuring us of that for weeks now. I’m recalling how much fun I got from David Mamet‘s Games, and at the same time gulping at the fact that it opened over 27 years ago.
The technical adviser on Focus is Apollo Robbins, a security expert and former criminal who claims to have picked the pockets of more than 250,000 victims. There’s no way anyone’s ever going to get my wallet or iPhone, I tell myself. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky. I know that my wallet and phone are always snugly tucked inside my breast pockets or, better yet, in a tight front-breast pocket. I’m extra-watchful and guarded whenever I’m in a dense crowd. If someone comes near me I duck away or elbow them aside or whatever.