Skip to main content

I am such a disgruntled employee!

Focus
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Will Smith comes full circle. He played a conman in his first big screen lead role, Six Degrees of Separation, and now he’s back at it. As the con genre goes, Focus makes a reasonable stab at how it should be done, particularly after the ridiculous and transparently annoying (and mystifyingly successful) fakery of Now You See Me. Yes, if you pick at its seams, they are bound to unravel, and there are barren patches, but Focus carries the satisfying sense of a hustle well done, even if it is unworthy to sit among the ranks of the modern hustlemeister, David Mamet.


Smith is evidently at a stage in his career where priorities have shifted. He can take hiatuses (this is only his second lead role in seven years), indulge in a spot of nepotism (grooming his son for stardom in After Earth, to the indifference of audiences), do favours for friends (a “can’t be bothered” showing as Lucifer in A New York Winter’s Tale), or generally just show he’s a good sport (his cameo in Anchorman 2). Still, whatever would possess him to team up with mediocre Hollywood conscience merchant Ed Zwick is anyone’s guess, but I guess Smith’s becoming soft in his middle age.


He doesn’t need to do Independence Day 2, and he may yet not end up doing Bad Boys 3. If he fails to pursue his serious actor potential (probably best shown in Ali and the first half of I Am Legend), that’s fine; he’s one of the last genuinely charismatic screen stars and it would be a shame if he went all Bruce Willis on us. The strange thing is, Focus has been sold, or rather mis-sold, as a morality tale along the lines of, say, The Grifters (it’s there in the trailer’s car crash introduction to Smith’s character), which may have unnecessarily turned off audiences. Sure, this isn’t Smith in indulgent Seven Pounds mode (thank goodness!), but he gets to flex his chops as the various ruses require him to weave in and out of whatever emotional state his character (Nicky) may or may not be in at the time. He also gets to be very funny sporadically (one always gets the impression he’s ad-libbing like crazy in his movies). This is perfect casting for a natural charisma machine; there’s enough edge to make it seem slightly out of his comfort zone, but any perceived heaviness of subject matter is only really in the heat of the moment.


The con movie is an eternal favourite, as evidenced by the recent American Hustle (how may movies are going to stick “American” in front of their title post-Sniper, under the mistaken assumption it precludes success?) but it needs to justify its smartness, to keep ahead of the viewer. Knowing the tone is as important. Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men ended up over-fussy, while Rian Johnson’s Brothers Bloom was just too damn whimsical. Then there are the smooth and irresistible Ocean’s Eleven movies, where nothing can really go too wrong. The yardstick, however, is David Mamet, master of pulling the rug from under audiences. He hit the jackpot first time out with House of Games (one could easily imagine Focus’ Brennan Brown filling in for Mamet’s then-favourite Joe Mantegna) and since then hasn’t dazzled quite as brightly, but there’s wrong footing aplenty in such later pictures The Spanish Prisoner and Heist (and those are just the ones that wear the con on their sleeves).


Many of the reviews of Focus have suggested it can’t match Mamet, but I think the issue is not the quality of the cons themselves, but rather the joining tissue.
Big Willie has chosen to graduate to mentor roles, with this and After Earth, but he also wants to eat his leading man cake. The (inadvertent?) consequence of this is that he is paired with the delectable Margot Robbie (Jess), not far from half his age but serving as his love interest. Smith looks great of course, but this is the kind of vanity indulgence you hoped was consigned to the Hollywood of yesteryear, or at worst the latest Bond movie.


Neither Robbie nor Smith can be faulted, but they don’t sizzle together, not in the way that, say Clooney and Lopez do in Out of Sight (admittedly a high water mark for crime movie liaisons). That’s maybe a fault on the part of writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; their leads clearly have a rapport, but there aren’t those crucial extra sparks. The result is, the frequent scenes of Nicky and Jess wooing and canoodling are amiable but uncommanding, and serve to break up the tension of the main meat.


The first scene, as Jess attempts to grift Nicky, to the latter’s amusement, sets up what really ought to be a picture in which the novice eventually becomes a master. But that never happens. Robbie’s is a reacting role, and it falls to her protégée to continually be wowed by Smith’s first class conman. That might be a consequence of the Will Smith package (I don’t know how much this changed between Ryan Gosling being attached and Smith coming on board). As a result, Focus never makes the most of Robbie’s talents, the occasional pickpocketing exercise aside (which itself is all based on her being eye candy). It’s almost as if the only aspect anyone remembered from The Wolf of Wall Street was her all together…


Another problem is the stop-start structure with which Ficarra and Requa have encumbered themselves. To an extent this is justified in keeping Nicky ahead of the game (I should emphasise that, even though I was expecting some twist in most of the sequences, I didn’t spot any of them until they were upon me; the biggest complement I can pay is that during the American Football betting scam, I even thought it was feasible they’d dopey enough to give their lead character a massive gambling problem, so the preceding misdirection worked on me at least). But, when there’s a jump to three years later midway through, it’s a sign that as engineers they haven’t grasped the importance of momentum in this kind of slippery scenario.


The best sequence precedes this, the aforementioned stadium betting. Because we share Jess’ innocence of what is going on, but we suspect something is afoot, numerous possibilities suggest themselves. Is she in on something with super rich gambler Liyuan (B D Wong, superlative, and infectiously energised)? Can Nicky really be this dumb? It isn’t until obligatory tubby sidekick Farhad (Adrian Martinez, foulmouthed and very funny; it’s a certainty that Robbie is genuinely laughing in many of their exchanges) appears in a number 55 team shirt that the grift falls into place.


The big scam, perhaps the one big one from which they can retire that Smith earlier mocks as a myth (although they don’t say as much), is patchy. Centring on Nicky being employed by a motorsport boss (the ever underwhelming Rodrigo Santoro) to fool a rival team into buying a dodgy component (don’t ask me how this is supposed to work in practice), Ficarra and Requa introduce the inevitable spanner in the works of Jess with inevitable satisfaction. This establishing scene, where she disrupts Nicky’s initial plans, throws our trust in his abilities off kilter. It’s clear enough that he is distracted and jealous, so the whole deal could unravel.


So this works in part, requiring one to add up the bits and pieces as one goes along (the scene where Owens, House of Cards’ Gerald McRaney, is sniffing around Nicky’s apartment only makes sense with hindsight), and there’s a superlative sidepiece out of a Tarantino or Coens movie as a heavy enters a hardware store, ostensibly it seem to buy items for torturing his victims, but is then revealed as merely insulating himself for his assault on Nicky’s car; a human crash test dummy. Later, the yarn spun by the tied-up Nicky is entirely convincing in itself.


Unfortunately, the final developments stretch credulity. Not so much the reveal that Owens is Nicky’s dad Bucky and was in on it all along, but his OTT means of solving matters by shooting Nicky in the chest (has no one ever heard of squibs?) An unconvincing scene in which Bucky takes the loot, remonstrating Nicky for being too soft for the game, follows. Which doesn’t make any sense as we’ve seen how good Nicky is. The point, I guess, is there needs to be some sort of cautionary aspect to it, and Will’s uncomfortable being a con hero who steals and gets away with it, at least without a Robin Hood code. So Nicky has a big heart (and is nearly shot through it to discourage impressionable viewers from following him into the crime game), and leaves the life for love.


This isn’t a show stopping Smith comeback vehicle, but it’s more likeable for that. Even though Focus hasn’t been a hit, it’s modestly budgeted and will probably break even in due course. Nothing he has coming up suggests a movie that will knock it out of the park either critically or commercially (I’m doubtful about the behind camera talent on Suicide Squad, Concussion and The American Can), but at least he seems motivated again. He’ll be pairing with Robbie again on Suicide Squad, and I hope she takes advantage of the post Wall Street offers to take more tangible parts than Jane in Tarzan. Whether her repairing with Ficarra and Requa (in the terribly titled war reportage comedy Fun House) is one of those, or Z for Zachariah is (some positive advance word), remains to be seen.


Ficarra and Requa are supported by favoured composer Nick Urata, and cinematographer Xavier Grobet. Editor Jan Kovac keeps the reveals snappy but just the right side of discernable (they need to be snappy so you don’t dwell on the holes). The New Orleans and Buenos Aires locations are shown off for all they’re worth in what is a highly lustrous affair. They’ve clearly gone for the classy angle, but they needed to smooth over their script with a few more drafts. I’ve liked pretty much everything this duo have been involved in, from Cats & Dogs to Bad Santa and earlier directorial outings I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy Stupid Love. This isn’t up there with either of those latter two, but it’s a respectable addition to the con genre.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady making who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It (2017)
(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the hor…

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine (1983)
(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.

Don't worry about Steed, ducky. I'll see he doesn't suffer.

The Avengers 4.11: Two’s A Crowd
Oh, look. Another Steed doppelganger episode. Or is it? One might be similarly less than complimentary about Warren Mitchell dusting off his bungling Russian agent/ambassador routine (it obviously went down a storm with the producers; he previously played Keller in The Charmers and Brodny would return in The See-Through Man). Two’s A Crowd coasts on the charm of its leads and supporting performances (including Julian Glover), but it’s middling fare at best.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)
(SPOILERS) I’d heard Marmite things about Tom Ford’s sophomore effort (I’ve yet to catch his debut), but they were enough to make me mildly intrigued. Unfortunately, I ended up veering towards the “I hate” polarity. Nocturnal Animals is as immaculately shot as you’d expect from a fashion designer with a meticulously unbuttoned shirt, but its self-conscious structure – almost that of a poseur – never becomes fluid in Ford’s liberal adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel, such that even its significantly stronger aspect – the film within the film (or novel within the film) – is diminished by the dour stodge that surrounds it.

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

Why are you painting my house?

mother!
(SPOILERS) Darren Aronofsky has a reasonably-sized chin, but on this evidence, he’ll have reduced it to a forlorn stump with all that stroking in no time at all. And then set the remains alight. And then summoned it back into existence for a whole new round of stroking. mother! is a self-indulgent exercise in unabated tedium in the name of a BIG idea, one no amount of assertive psued-ing post-the-fact can turn into a masterpiece. Yes, that much-noted “F” cinemascore was well warranted.

Let the monsters kill each other.

Game of Thrones Season Seven
(SPOILERS) Column inches devoted to Game of Thrones, even in “respectable” publications, seems to increase exponentially with each new season, so may well reach critical mass with the final run. Groundswells of opinion duly become more evident, and as happens with many a show by somewhere around this point, if not a couple of years prior, Season Seven has seen many of the faithful turn on once hallowed storytelling, and at least in part, there’s good reason for that.

Some suggest the show has jumped the shark (or crashed the Wall); there were concerns over how much the pace increased last year, divested as it was of George RR Martin’s novels as a direct source, but this year’s succession of events make Six seem positively sluggish. I don’t think GoT has suddenly, resoundingly, lost it, and I’d argue there did need to be an increase in momentum (people are quick to forget how much moaning went on about seemingly nothing happening for long stretches of previ…