Movie Review: Focus
By Matthew Huntley
March 4, 2015
More of the plot, I will not say, but because we’ve seen so many con artist movies (The Sting, Matchstick Men, American Hustle), and because Focus never really bothers to stray from the norm, we already know the underlying question driving the narrative will be who’s really playing whom? And because the movie adheres to this age-old strategy so loyally, when the time finally comes for the “big wrap-up,” or the inevitable scene when everything gets explained to the audience so that we become privy to how the characters did everything, how they really know and feel about one another, what their back stories and motivations are, etc., the element of surprise is more or less nil, because we knew something like it was already coming. Focus constantly underlines the fact it’s a con artist movie and simply and unambitiously lives up to that label, all in a rather routine manner.
Consider the scene at the football game, right after the New Orleans job, when Nicky makes a series of increasingly high stakes bets with a playful businessman named Liyuan (BD Wong). Because we know Nicky has a gambling problem, the movie tries to steer us into this thinking this will be the beginning of Nicky’s downfall and therefore attempts to generate drama and suspense from it. However, our knowledge of the genre has made us too smart not to realize things are never what they seem in con artist movies. This is how con artist movies operate - characters misdirect each other as the movie tries to misdirect the audience. And because we know this, the twist that ensues doesn’t really shock or surprise us.
The way Focus might have redeemed its hackneyed qualities was by developing the characters beyond their roles in the plot, but the screenplay by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also share directing credits, doesn’t allow enough time for this. It’s too eager to wrap up the plot, get to the end and explain what it did. Ficarra and Requa seem to think this is what viewers mostly want to see because it’s what we’re used to, but hopefully with their next collaboration, they’ll realize audiences actually like films that are more different and daring and that it pays to defy our expectations.
Focus is what you might call an “easy watch,” or a standard example of its type that’s more entertaining than dull, but it’s not exactly fulfilling. Sure, we enjoy the company and interaction of the characters, and we can appreciate the slick editing, glossy production values and pretty locations, but because it’s so obvious what the movie is going to do, that when it actually does it, its overall impact gets diluted.