Films about con artists have been around for a long time, but the paragon of the genre hit the silver screen all the way back in 1973, and since that time it has remained the archetype that all other films of the same subject matter have failed either to match or surpass. I can’t think of too many movies I would classify as perfect, but “The Sting,” starring Robert Redford and the late Paul Newman, certainly is one of them. It set the bar so high for films about con games that I can’t foresee any pretenders ever dethroning it.
The most recent contribution to the category of films involving con artists is “Focus,” in which Will Smith portrays Nicky Spurgeon, an accomplished con man and the head of a very successful band of grifters. As the story begins, Nicky is having a drink in a New York nightclub when a beautiful young woman approaches him and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend for a few minutes. Apparently she is trying escape from someone who has been bothering her, and she introduces herself as Jess Barrett (Margo Robbie).
After they share a drink, Jess invites Nicky to her room, where she attempts to pull a fast one him (I’m being intentionally vague here.), fails miserably, and completely embarrasses herself in the process. As it turns out, Jess desperately wants to join the land of con artists, and a few days later she again runs into Nicky and practically begs him to take her under his wing and teach her some of his many tricks.
Nicky finally agrees to let Jess accompany him to New Orleans, where he tests her by having her pull off a number of small jobs to prove that she can be a worthy member of his team. Jess ultimately passes the test and engages in some serious conning that culminates in the best one of the film at championship football game.
As you would expect, during Jess’s training, Nicky falls for her, and the two of them begin a relationship that Nicky knows is dangerous because it can cause him to lose focus in his profession. Thus, despite a huge haul from the football game caper, Nicky ends his affair with Jess much to her dismay and confusion.
Now we move ahead three years to Buenos Aires, where Nicky is planning another big job. And who shows up unexpectedly? Jess of course. Her appearance sets up the final segment of the film, and although it’s supposed to be a big surprise, the final twist is disappointingly predictable.
“Focus” can be divided neatly into three main segments that occur in New York, New Orleans, and Buenos Aires. The first one introduces the characters of Nicky and Jess and shows how Jess finally becomes a member of Nicky’s team. The second is by far the most interesting part of the film as it recounts Nicky’s matching wits (and bets) at a football game with Liyuan Tse (B.D.Wong), a ridiculously wealthy gambler who is unable to quit while he’s ahead. Then the Buenos Aires segment reunites Nicky and Jess for one final con that I found the least interesting one in the film.
Smith manages to make Nicky a very appealing character, and the scenes in which he teaches Jess the fine art of picking people’s pockets is both highly entertaining and refreshingly humorous. And Jess proves to be such an adept student that she soon is able to pick Nicky’s pocket without his knowing it. Despite the fact that Nicky is in the business of ripping people off, we can’t help liking the guy, and that, of course, is as testament to Smith’s portrayal of him. In the film’s production notes the actor offered some insight into is character.
“Nicky is one of the smartest, most dysfunctional people you’ll ever meet. He understands human nature and human behavior –there are very few people with that level of depth and comprehension. But he got his heart broken when he was little, and he has not yet learned to use his powers for good.”
As Nicky’s partner in crime, the stunningly beautiful Robbie turns in a polished performance as Jess. You may remember this Australian-born beauty from her role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she’s as talented as she is gorgeous. (In some shots she resembles Grace Kelly, the Helen of Troy of the cinema world.) The part of Jess demands a demonstration of every human emotion, and Robbie runs the gamut flawlessly. In the production notes Robbie explained what attracted her to the film.
“The script immediately caught my attention. It was funny and dramatic with touching emotional scenes but also a really engaging and intricate plot. There was just so much going on, both on the surface and beneath. I thought it was brilliant that this pair of thieves might fall in love in a world where there’s no room for it, where trust is just a tool to manipulate people, to steal from them.”
“I think Will and I had the right sort of energy for the characters from the start. We got along right away, and that made it easy to goof around and improvise. It was a very fast friendship. Will’s the best. He’s hilarious, he has such a positive presence, and he’s so accommodating and lovely. I actually forgot that he has such a high profile and huge fan base-until we got to Argentina, and suddenly there were thousands of people outside the trailer on our first day of shooting there!”
And Smith was reciprocal in his enthusiasm for Robbie.
“Margot is fantastic. She is the perfect little Energizer Bunny. I’ve always prided myself on having the most energy on any set; I like to keep the workplace fun and upbeat. In my 20-plus years in this business, Margot was the first person that made me tap out with entertaining the crew and keeping the workplace spirits ablaze.”
“Focus” is a film rife with lavish sets, nice costumes, and drama punctuated with humor, and because of that it’s fine escape entertainment. Also, Smith and Robbie play well together, and some of the pickpocketing scenes are wonderful.
As far as films in the con genre are concerned, “Focus” isn’t the worst ever, but it’s a far cry from “The Sting” because it’s much too easy to see the big reveal coming. Nevertheless, the film moves along quickly and offers quite satisfactory entertainment. Therefore it receives the final score of a respectable and clearly focused seven.