Focus [2015]

The essential element in any film about con artists is the twist ending, where the film reveals the truth to the audience in a moment that links together all the little incongruities and oddities into a coherent narrative that now makes sense. This is not dissimilar to a Whodunit, where the identity of the killer renders intelligible a narrative that has been deliberately fragmented as part of the killer’s plan. In all such twist films, part of the effect is generated by the action inside the fiction, as characters deliberately obfuscate and divert, and part comes from the carefully edited highlights and perspectives that the film offers. In some sense, any detection, grift, or magic show has an unreliable narrator. These films are at their best when the characters themselves are not sure of each others’ loyalties, and at their worst when the structural necessity for a plot twist is used as a get-out-of-jail moment that is entirely outside the perspective offered by the film (Ocean’s Twelve, I’m looking at you, you lazy self-indulgent piece of shit). Focus is somewhere near the broad and easy end of this spectrum with a twist that doesn’t feel quite earned or all that smart, but the con is not the point of the film as such – Focus is much better read as an almost pure romance, with the con forming the framing for the central love relationship. Just think of it as a regency drama with stealing things instead of masquerade balls. As with other genre mash-ups, the obvious question to ask is what this change in venue means for the underlying dramatic formula. So let’s take a very quick look at the basic story templates that are in play here before drawing some inferences.

The basic romance drama is that a boy and a girl like each other. In the first phase of the romance, they discover some mutual interest, such as soccer in Bend It Like Beckham. This mutual interest forms the basis of a friendship as a proto-romance, in which one or other of the romantic pair learns from the other. In the most male-worshipping of these dramas that learning experience is simply the man showing the woman the whole world – think Aladdin (their mutual interest is, broadly, freedom). At some point the romance is disrupted, usually on fairly spurious grounds, usually imposed by an external agent to the drama. A period of mourning proceeds before things are simply subjected to a deus ex machina that realigns the narrative.

The basic plot in any con is a little more multi-faceted. In the first instance a mark is identified, and they need to have several key qualities. First, they’ve got to have something to lose, because if there’s nothing to steal then there’s really no point in conning them. Secondly, they need to have something they want, and want enough to risk the thing they started off with. The “Roper” finds the mark, and invites them to make contact with the “Inside Man”, who entices the mark into the scenario that’s being constructed by the “Fixer”. One of the great pleasures of most films is working out who is fulfilling what purpose, and most often the real Inside Man is hidden from the audience as structurally the easiest reveal.

The cynical parallels are strong between these genres. There is an introductory phase, a what-I-have-to-offer phase, and then the crucial moment where there’s either a deal or there isn’t. In a romance the risk is that the apparent love interest falls short in some way, in a con film the risk is that the mark decides he wants what he already has more than what they’re being offered. The pay-off in a romance is that the transaction is a happy one and they all live forever in joy. The pay-off in the con is that one party is destroyed for the benefit of the other. The risk if you’re in a romance-con film is that when you think you’re getting True Love, you’re getting played. In practical effect, the romance plot is the perfect tool for the con artist – the so-called “Honey Trap”. Love is pretty close to the perfect thing to offer in exchange for whatever material is really the objective. In the best versions of this story, like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Best Offer, the con and the romance are inseparable, and the weakness of Focus is that it merely uses the trappings of the con for its romance rather than making them structurally intertwined.

The best thing about this film was the performances. Will Smith and Margot Robbie are very strong screen presences, with a palpable chemistry. Despite myself, I found that I liked both of them, and was interested in the romance plotline. In terms of pure entertainment, Focus successfully passed the time.

I gave it a 6/10 on the IMDB based almost entirely on its charisma making up for its structural defects.

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