Do you think the Focus production office sent out a secret call sheet on the day you arrived on set reminding the cast and crew to leave their valuables at home? You call yourself a “gentleman thief,” but one can never be too careful. A con artist must cultivate a certain kind of sociopathic charm in order to be successful; a talent for knowing what people secretly want and then giving it to them—or at least delivering the illusion. Pickpocketing, it seems, requires a different set of skills: the ability to blend in, to be simultaneously seen and not seen. You came to fame by pickpocketing President Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service agents, relieving them of the keys to his motorcade. You must have talked a pretty good game, because instead of ending up behind bars, you became a consultant for law enforcement and security agencies.
It seems that the Secret Service and the makers of Focus can agree on at least one thing; clever and charming criminals are a lot of fun to be around. At least for a while.
The plot of Focus is typically convoluted: veteran con-man Nicky takes neophyte pickpocket Jess under his wing for a multi-million dollar operation during the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Three years later, after hearts and trust have been broken, they meet again in Buenos Aires where Nicky is helping a billionaire Formula One race-car team owner (and Jess’ new boyfriend) cheat his way to a win.
After meeting-cute in a failed “jealous husband” scam, Jess begs Nicky to show her some of his tricks (which are actually yours). As he casually chats with her about the art of pickpocketing, he relieves her of various belongings – a ring, a watch, a wallet – and returns them to her while she watches, dumbfounded. He tells her that the trick is in diverting a mark’s focus, making them see what they want to see. Focus takes this advice to heart. Con/Heist films are best when they (a) don’t take themselves too seriously, and (b) give the audience lots of beautiful things and people to pay attention to. Will Smith’s Nicky is all brooding suaveness in dark bespoke suits, and Margot Robbie’s Jess pops like bubblegum with bright pink dresses and wide-eyed enthusiasm. Their chemistry is palpable, their romance inevitable, but we’re always anticipating the bait and switch.
You’ve given TED talks on the science behind awareness manipulation and why we’re psychologically wired to want to believe what we see. The pickpocket design you delivered for Focus – specifically the one protracted scene in New Orleans – is certainly exciting to watch. As Nicky’s team introduces Jess to their system, the camera follows a series of expertly executed lifts and boosts as it skims through a crowd of revelers gathered in the streets. Post-scam, the loot is displayed in a satisfying sequence reminiscent of that ode to excess, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: hundreds of Piagets and Rolexes, jeweled rings and necklaces, and piles of money laid out in velvet lined cases. A high-stakes gambling scam during the Super Bowl involving the goofily creeptastic B.D. Wong is particularly nerve-wracking. This pace is exhilarating. But, unfortunately, isn’t sustained throughout this otherwise perfectly fun and funny con-man flick.
When the film changes locales to Buenos Aires, it loses some of its lustre, despite the dizzyingly sumptuous backdrop of brightly coloured cars, buildings, and women. It’s only a matter of time before alliances are broken and double-crosses are double-crossed. Up until now, the film could have lifted whatever it wanted from my purse, but, by the end, with only the obvious love story left to hold our attention, my focus was wandering. With some hilarious supporting performances by Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, and the aforementioned Wong, Focus does it’s best to divert our attention from its barely-better-than-average plot twists.
I left feeling like many of the audience members you’ve amused with your theatrical pickpocketing: it was a harmless good time, and I didn’t mind feeling a little bit cheated.
Keep your hands to yourself