“It’s about distraction,” Will Smith says in the new caper movie “Focus.” “It’s about focus. The brain is slow and it can’t multitask. Tap him here, take from there.”
The same could apply to the movie. Caper movies are probably second only to Biblical epics as the toughest genre to pull off well. There are remarkably few great caper movies on a list headed by “The Sting” and Steven Soderbergh’s dazzling “Ocean’s Eleven” remake. After that the pickings get slim. Either version of “The Thomas Crown Affair?” “The Hot Rock?”
It isn’t that it’s hard to get audiences to root for criminals. Movie audiences love rebels and and it’s easy to get them in the crook’s corner, especially when likeable actors play the crooks. Audiences rooted for Newman and Redford as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and then again in “The Sting.” They got behind Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as “Bonnie and Clyde,” and again, even more improbably for Al Pacino in “Scarface.”
The problem usually has more to do with plot than character. Caper movies, by their very nature, are complex, and the filmmakers are required to both keep the audience guessing while simultaneously making them feel they’ve been treated fairly. Like a good mystery, the clues have to be there. The audience has to have a fair chance to figure it out.
The clues are thin but present here. It doesn’t help the movie’s momentum though that the big con in the story doesn’t begin to unfold until about halfway through the movie’s modest 104 minute running time, after two other extended encounters between the main characters. Smith stars as Nicky, a third generation con man who becomes romantically involved with novice Jess (Margot Robbie). As he’s teaching her the tricks of the trade, she gets too close for comfort and he abruptly breaks it off. Three years later, Jess—now an apparently accomplished femme fatale—shows up in the high stakes Buenos Aires racecar circuit, where Nicky is setting up a dangerous, big money con.
Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (“Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) from their own script, “Focus” suffers from, sorry, it can’t be resisted, a lack of focus. The movie never quite seems sure whether it’s supposed to a light-hearted caper movie in the vein of “The Sting” or “Ocean’s Eleven” or a crime movie with gravitas. Smith, who plays Nick with less charm and energy than his fans would expect, doesn’t help. Nick seems world-weary, weighed down by the baggage of his past, dare we say it, old. It’s an intelligent performance, but not a fun one.
There isn’t any appreciable on-screen chemistry between the ridiculously attractive leads, and “Focus” has less sizzle in the sex and romance department than it should. This is a deficit, particularly in a story where the fact that we never quite know what the main characters are up to should actually up the tension. Margot Robbie makes a strong second impression after her introduction to international audiences in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Adrian Martinez is entertaining as Nick’s longtime partner in crime. Rodrigo Santoro (“300”) is adequate as an amoral racecar owner who wants to shore up his changes. Gerald McRaney, currently riding a wave with “House of Cards,” phones in an acceptable performance as Santoro’s surly head of security.
Director of Photography Xavier Grobet (“Enough Said”), Production Designer Beth Mickle and Art Director Kelly Curley have combined to make a very handsome movie that milks every inch out of its location shooting, and Margot Robbie, who looks deliriously gorgeous in designer dresses and bathing suits alike. The eclectic soundtrack runs the gamut from Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones to the Ray Conniff Singers. (The movie’s use of “Sympathy for the Devil” turns out to contain a clue.)
The movie’s big con is complex enough that it should have raised its head sooner, although some of the movie’s most entertaining material is in the early part of the movie where Jess is learning the tricks of the trade and the audience watches a series of dazzlingly choreographed pickpocketing crimes with voyeuristic glee. Similarly, BD Wong briefly steals the show as a high stakes gambler in by far the movie’s most surprising sequence, which ultimately has nothing to do with the third act action.
Apollo Robbins gets on-screen credit as “con artist adviser/pickpocket design.” That’s one you probably haven’t seen before.
“Focus” is now showing at theaters across the Capital District, including the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8, the Bow Tie Movieland 6 in Schenectady, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, The Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue in Albany, the Bow Tie Wilton Mall Cinemas and BTX and the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas 11 & BTX in Saratoga Springs.