‘Focus’: Unfocused caper flick

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“Focus,” offers a promising caper film. It comes replete with a romantic twist, involving co-stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), and some great looking locations. For an interview with Will Smith click HERE.

The film begins in a deluxe New York hotel bar, where Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is eating dinner alone. He espies a stunning blonde, Jess Barrett (Robbie), sitting at the bar, where she is being harassed by a lecherous boozehound.

Jess escapes his unwelcome advances by seeking refuge at Nicky’s table. One thing leads to another and the two adjourn to Jess’ bedroom upstairs. It doesn’t take long before the duo are sprawled out on the bed, engaged in foreplay. Suddenly, a man barges into the room, claiming to be Jess’s jealous husband, and wildly waving a gun.

Will Smith stars as Nicky and Margot Robbie as Jess in Warner Bros. Pictures’ heist film “FOCUS.” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company. Photo by Frank Masi

Will Smith stars as Nicky and Margot Robbie as Jess in Warner Bros. Pictures’ heist film “FOCUS.” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company. Photo by Frank Masi

Oh no — how will Nicky escape this perilous situation? With a gun being pointed directly at his head, Nicky calmly reveals that he knows that that they acting out a honeypot scam. He delineates the various procedural errors that they made in trying to execute it.

How did Nicky realize that they were scamming him? It turns out that Nicky is a master scam artist in his own right. Indeed, he is the scion of three generations of notorious scamsters. Nicky had spotted Jess from jump street. He noticed her boosting a watch from an inebriated barfly. Jess wants to know why Nicky accepted the invitation to her boudoir if he already knew that she was a scam artist? With a glibness that will become his character’s trademark, Nicky retorts, “professional curiosity.”

It turns out that Nicky is planning to exploit the hysteria of an upcoming championship game by orchestrating a scam operation in host city, New Orleans. He has assembled several dozen associates. Collectively, they will be pick-pocketing wallets, watches, and jewelry from fans gathered for the occasion.

Jess wants in. Nicky contends that she isn’t ready for prime time. However, when Jess demonstrates her own dexterity as a pick-pocket, Nicky changes his mind and incorporates her into his operation.

Nicky’s team boosts $1.1 million on lucre before kick-off of the big game. In one of the film’s many incongruities, Nicky closes down the operation, even though there is still plenty of more money to be made. Nicky is supposed to be super-savvy, but the film provides no plausible explanation for his counter-intuitive decision.

Nicky has somehow wrangled an invitation to a V.I.P. suite at the stadium. Jess is thrilled to be escorted there by Nicky. Once there, Nicky seemingly succumbs to his own inner demons. He makes a series of large, ill-advised wagers with Liyuan (B.D. Wong), an impulsive high-roller in the suite. The film’s attempt to provide a supposed logic for Nicky’s dubious betting strategy proves ludicrously far-fetched.

Nicky has pulled off an amazing scam and has snared a beautiful babe to boot. However, we’re only an hour into the film. What to do? The screenwriters have Nicky abruptly terminate his newly blossomed romance with Jess. She’s confused and heartbroken. What prompted Nicky to dissolve a relationship that seemed so sexually and emotionally fulfilling?

The second half of the film involves Nicky being lured out of retirement to pull off another scam in Buenos Aires. This time, the mark is Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), an unscrupulous, multi-millionaire owner of a Formula I racing team. Nicky’s customary equanimity is challenged, when he learns that Garriga’s girlfriend is none other than his one-time paramour, Jess.

It has been 22 years since Will Smith played another scam artist in “Six Degrees of Separation.” He returns here, eager to redeem himself after the box office debacle of M. Night Shymalan’s “After Earth.” Smith and Robey make for a fine-looking couple. However, I never felt any real erotic sizzle between them.

In a role as Garriga’s suspicious security chief, Owens, Gerald McRaney, is phenomenal. He offers an edge that is egregiously absent from the rest of the film.

What makes for a great caper film? In classics like “The Sting,” and “House of Games,” there are plenty of twists and turns in the carefully constructed storyline.  The viewer is manipulated by the adroit use of misdirection. In the end, the viewer learns that they have been the victim of their own misperceptions.

The work of “Focus” co-writers/co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”), is plagued with problems. During the second half of “Focus,” Garriga provides a sufficiently slimy villain. However, in the first half of the film, the victims of Nicky’s crew are everyday people.  It makes Nicky, Jess, and their compatriots difficult to identify with.

“Focus” is further plagued by a series of ludicrous incongruities and inconsistencies. Ficarra and Requa haven’t paid adequate attention to character motivation or narrative coherency.

“Focus” lacks the very quality that the film touts in its title.

**1/2 R (for language, some sexual content and brief violence) 104 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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