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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Focus movie review: con inartistry

Focus red light

Unpleasant, humor free, and contrary to accepted codes of movie morality. And that’s before it shows its hand as a pile of implausible sentimental mush.
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good con movie

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

How did the filmmaking team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa — responsible for the brilliant nastiness of Bad Santa (as writers) and charming sweetness of I Love You Phillip Morris (as writers and directors) — come to this? Focus is unpleasant, humor free, and contrary to accepted codes of movie (and nonmovie) morality. Con artists Nicky (Will Smith: Winter’s Tale), a seasoned expert, and Jess (Margot Robbie: The Wolf of Wall Street), a naive upstart, meet-criminal-cute in New York and move on to work an elaborate pickpocketing operation at the “Associated Football Franchise of America”’s not-Superbowl in New Orleans, where they (and their gang, which is run with sleek businesslike efficiency) rake in more than a million dollars stealing watches and wallets from ordinary schmucks like you and me. I suspect we’re meant to be impressed by their cleverness and entrepreneurial spirit, but anyone who’s had their credit card compromised by lowlifes like these will not be amused, and whatever sympathy we may have had for these people — which wasn’t much to start with — is forever beyond the movie’s reach. (Not even Smith’s everyman appeal helps here.) Then it’s three years later, in Buenos Aires, where Nicky is pulling a job on a millionaire racing engineer (Rodrigo Santoro: Rio 2) and Jess shows up unexpectedly, and for a while I could cling to a small hope that perhaps she is playing a really long con on Nicky, or will at least pull a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on him (which he definitely deserves). But nope. Focus is built on a framework of scraps stolen from other, better con-job movies, and seems to hope that its bland slickness will distract you from the fact that it ultimately has nothing to offer but the pile of implausible sentimental mush it produces, as if by magic, from up its sleeve while you were looking at your watch.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Focus for its representation of girls and women.


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Focus (2015)
US/Can release: Feb 27 2015
UK/Ire release: Feb 27 2015

MPAA: rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, violence, sex, sex references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Jeremy

    I lost all hope for this review when it mentioned Will Smith (Winters Tale) Surely you can do better than that. I Am Legend maybe? idk…Bad Boys? Ali?

  • Bluejay

    The rule is that you mention the most recent films that the actor has been in. Standard protocol.

  • Danielm80

    And, of course, MaryAnn only links to films she’s reviewed. I feel terrible for Richard Gere. He’s been in all sorts of acclaimed films, but his most recent credit is Movie 43.

  • filmklassik

    Question: How does one reconcile their open contempt for a movie that shows its heroes —

    “…raking in more than a million dollars stealing watches and wallets from ordinary schmucks like you and me. I suspect we’re meant to be impressed by their cleverness and entrepreneurial spirit, but anyone who’s had their credit card compromised by lowlifes like these will not be amused, and whatever sympathy we may have had for these people — which wasn’t much to start with — is forever beyond the movie’s reach.”

    — with one’s (presumed) affection for motion pictures like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GETAWAY, RESEVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION — all of which celebrate low-life heroes who are, variously, bank robbers, thieves, and sociopathic killers?

  • Danielm80

    If we’re presuming things then, presumably, if she did like those movies, she was impressed by the characters’ “cleverness and entrepreneurial spirit,” or by their charm, wit, skill, courage, compassion, or other admirable traits. And, based on this review, we can presume that the filmmakers failed to give any of those qualities to the characters in Focus.

  • None of those movies want us to go “Awwwwww, ain’t they *adorable*?!” in the end.

    Also: Why do you presume my affection for any given film?

  • filmklassik

    I wouldn’t “presume your affection for any given film” — that is, any INDIVIDUAL film — but if you didn’t think ANY movie on that list was worthy of admiration… if you turned thumbs-down on BONNIE AND CLYDE (“Suck it, Bonnie!”), and thought BUTCH CASSIDY was so much sagebrush swill (“Dance on THIS, Sundance!”) and PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS were garbage, too, and Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY was even worse… if you couldn’t recommend ANY movie on that list, then I would seriously question your credentials as a film critic.

    As for you “Awwww, ain’t they adorable theory,” I would argue that one reason BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was the most popular movie of its year, 1969 — pulling in DOUBLE the gross of the second-place film — was because the entire country fell in love with those guys. Here’s the poster for the re-release: https://www.movieposter.com/poster/MPW-25417/Butch_Cassidy_and_the_Sundance_Kid.html

  • Look: It’s all about tone and context. It’s about how a movie tells its story. *Focus* does not get it right. The movies you are likening to *Focus* bear no resemblance it whatsoever.

  • Look: It’s all about tone and context. It’s about how a movie tells its story. *Focus* does not get it right. The movies you are likening to *Focus* bear no resemblance it whatsoever.

  • filmklassik

    Got it. My bad. I thought you were objecting to the immorality of the characters.

    See, I’ve heard people do that with movies like this one. They say things like, “Why should I care about a bunch of con men and thieves?”

    It’s like they have celluloid amnesia, because when you point out that THE STING was about just such a crew, they sputter and say, “Well, that was different. Those guys were swindling a gangster in order to avenge a murdered pal.”

    “Okay,” you reply, “but Butch and Sundance weren’t avenging a murdered pal, were they? They ran around pointing loaded guns at innocent people and demanding their money. Just like Bonnie and Clyde did. Just like Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw did in The Getaway. And don’t forget that Tony Soprano was an unrepentant Mafia don on HBO for seven years and people LOVED him.”

    That’s when they usually find some quick way to end the conversation.

  • RogerBW

    I’m a fan of caper/twist stories in general, but they have to get it right. The BBC series Hustle, and the TNT series Leverage, both went to great trouble to make their marks blatantly villainous (often cartoonishly so in the cast of Hustle), so that the audience could maintain sympathy for the protagonists.

    I’m wondering why this one rubbed me wrong in the trailer. It’s not the stealing-from-the-poor, because that wasn’t really in there. Perhaps it’s the way Robbie came over as a pretty-woman-shaped placeholder.

  • I’m gonna take a wild stab and guess that nobody (other than maybe some actual sociopaths like Tony himself) loved Tony Soprano *because* he was a killer.

    When we *do* love con artists and thieves *because* (or at least partly because) they are con artists and thieves, it’s because they are directing their crimes at people who deserve it (worst villains than them; faceless corporations who cheat regular folks; etc). Robin Hood can be a total jerk and still get an automatic pass. But there is *nothing* to these character in *Focus* to make us like them. That massive pickpocketing operation is presented with the same (or at least the filmmakers hope the same) pizzazz as Danny Ocean’s plan to steal from Terry Benedict’s casinos. (Casinos are rigged and Benedict is a massive asshole, so it’s all good.) Yet it cannot hope to make us like them when we can see how easily and without any conscience at all they would steal from you or me. And there’s nothing else to them to balance that out.

  • Jurgan

    Poor Dev Patel (The Last Airbender).

  • He’s working as an actor. I’m sure he’s happy.

  • bronxbee

    i miss Leverage…

  • RogerBW

    Well, John Rogers is now running The Librarians, with Christian Kane as one of the stars. Might be worth a look? I liked it – review on my blog.

  • bronxbee

    i’ve seen a couple of episodes of it — i thought they did an excellent transition and i do enjoy the episodes. Christian Kane; he’s a far better actor than the material, he always manages to bring a bit of depth and even mystery to the character. and i like rebecca romjin too. not *great* tv (not on a par with Leverage) but very enjoyable.

  • Beowulf

    Apart from THE GETAWAY, almost everyone of the movies you mentioned end with the death of the “heroes” or, at least, protagonists. I just watched LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN and (spoiler alert), they all get caught. For the plans to succeed they must be heists that target corporate baddies, other bad guys, or are “Robin Hood” like capers.

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