Movie Review: Focus (2015)
Why the Hollywood fascination with con artists? Is it an easy metaphor for what they do to us? Show us a pretty face or a handsome bod and while our attention is diverted pick our pocket? We leave the theater feeling rooked.
And what the fuck happened to Will Smith? For 15 years he couldn’t appear onscreen without exuding charm, but since coming back from a four-year hiatus he’s played the most charmless dolts. He plays soft-spoken superior men who don’t have time for the rest of us. We’re an avenue to his power. We get stepped on.
“Focus” is a kind of love story, just not a very good one. Nicky (Smith) takes Jess (Margot Robbie), a pretty blonde amateur scam artist, under his wing, and shows her the basics of grifting. Then during a Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans, he lets her in on the super-efficient rarefied air of his grifting operation, where members of his team pick pockets and scam football fans as easily as football fans high five one another. Before the game even starts, they’ve netted more than $1 million of, well, our money. Thanks, bro.
But there are intimations that Nicky has a gambling problem, and, at the game, which isn’t really the Super Bowl since the NFL didn’t want to be associated with this thing, he gets into a series of bets with Liyuan (B.D. Wong), a happy-go-lucky Chinese gambler, and keeps losing: $1,000, $50K, then $1 million—all the money he’d earned, or stolen, all gone on what are in essence 50/50 bets: The next play will be a run; the next pass will be caught, etc. Finally, ruined, he decides to make an absurd bet where the odds are astronomically against him. He bets that Liyuan can pick the number of any player on the field and Jess can guess it. Liyuan tries to warn him off; Jess is horrified and wants no part of it. But the bet goes forward. And using binoculars, Jess spies, on the sidelines, Farhad (Adrian Martinez), an overweight grifter who is part of Nicky’s team, wearing No. 55. So she chooses that one. Which is the number Liyuan chose. Nicky wins it all back! But how? That’s what Jess wants to know.
Turns out they’d set up Liyuan from the beginning. They made sure the number “55” kept appearing in his field of vision during the previous few days. They were also playing the Rolling Stones’ song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in the luxury suite, with its background vocals going “Woo woo, woo woo,” and Nicky helpfully explains to Jess that the Chinese word for five is “Woo.” Woo woo. Five five.
And that’s it. That’s how they won that absurd, impossible bet. In that absurd, impossible fashion.
It turns out Nicky doesn’t have a gambling problem. But then why does he go to the racetrack and lose? Who’s being set up there? Just us? And how did he know he would lose all of those 50/50 bets earlier? Or did he plan to just keep betting until they got to the point where the absurd bet was necessary? Except it never was.
After all this excitement, Nicky unceremoniously cuts Jess loose. He gives her the money she earned and boots her from his car. I guess he was becoming attached and he doesn’t want attachments. That would be vaguely human and Will Smith isn’t that anymore.
Oh, and FYI, but the Chinese word for “five” sounds more like “oo” than “woo.” It’s third tone, falling and rising. It's very specific. What the Stones sing sounds as much like five in Chinese as it sounds like five in English.
Anyway, that’s the first half of the movie. The second half is set in Buenos Aires, where a rich, unscrupulous racecar owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), against the wishes of his personal bodyguard Owens (Gerald McRaney), hires a seemingly bereft Nicky to scam his competition. Garriga owns a McGuffin that will allow him to race faster, and he wants Nicky to pretend to be a disgruntled engineer who will sell that technology to the Aussie competition, McEwen (Robert Taylor). Ah, except he’ll really be selling something that’s not quite as good, allowing Garriga to keep winning! Hahahahahaha.
So that idea is stupid. But then Nicky double-crosses him by selling the real McGuffin to nine of Garriga’s competitors, netting $27 million in all, even as Owens closes in on both Nicky and Jess, who is Garriga’s girlfriend, and over whom Nicky seems to be getting all moony-eyed. Seems he’s missed her these past years.
Except! She’s not really Garriga’s girlfriend. She’s just trying to steal his watch or something, while Garriga and Owens think of her as a garden-variety racetrack skank. (The movie is not kind to Robbie's character.) Plus! Nicky is faking being moony-eyed. That’s part of the scam, too. Because! Owens is really working with Nicky. He’s really Nicky’s father. Which leave us! Nowhere.