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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Review: Focus (non-spoiler until marked)

focus-movie-108975

Focus is the kind of movie that could drive a film critic mad. It’s like a feast of everything one might love about Soderbergh (especially Out of Sight), both Thomas Crown Affairs, The Sting, The Lady Eve, Mamet’s Heist, The Grifters, and even some Tony Scott.

But it doesn’t quite work.

Amazingly, that sense comes through pretty clearly in the advertising. There is something just a little off. There is a lack of, really, focus. Is it a sexy romp? Is it a heist movie? If it’s about a con man, what is the con?

I went to the screening hoping for a clearer answer and assuming there would be one. And there was. And then there wasn’t.

What hit me during the movie is that there was some big element missing from the film, which has a lot of very likable elements. But it took about 20 quiet minutes after the film to realize what it was. There is no second act.

The writing-directing team behind the film, Ficarra & Requa, have a history as screenwriters and directors of clever dialogue, strong characters, and odd story structures that sometimes work brilliantly (Bad Santa, Cats & Dogs, a very underrated kids movie that works for adults, but not in a terribly ironic way), sometimes fall flat (Bad News Bears, I Love You Phillip Morris, which has great performances, but never quite makes sense) and sometimes in fall right the middle, which is the case with Crazy, Stupid, Love., which has some of the best romantic tension sequences you’ll see and some attempts as things that never quite work.

Focus has a prologue in New York City that serves, I guess, as the first act of the film… though not really. It’s an excellent idea for a meet-cute, but here, while the writing worked, the magic that Soderbergh brought to Out of Sight and his other films from that era eludes the skill level of these directors… who practically trace the classic movie onto this new one. Sorry… but snowy city, moody lighting, a certain kind of music… Soderbergh owns it like Capra or Hitchcock own cinematic imagery that cannot be done without it feeling like homage.

Leap forward to what seems to be meant as the second act, at the not-Super Bowl in New Orleans. The Boy & Girl are reunited. He is now with his team. She has to prove she belongs. She does, in a fairly fresh idea of an organization working – illicitly – a major event. The filmmakers are a little over their head, in terms of the visual magic of the Rube Goldberg Thieves bit, but it is certainly entertaining enough. Then, they do it one too many times. But let’s put that aside.

In this act, it becomes clearer that the movie is about The Boy & The Girl. Without wanting to reveal any real spoilers, I will just say that it works.

Cut To: A few years later. We don’t know the current status of The Boy & The Girl and we have learned not to trust what we see in the movie. Are these two on the same track? On separate tracks? Is there a big twist coming? What emotions are real and which are fake?

This is the most complicated act… and for the most part, it works. There are some missing callbacks and such, but basically, it works. And as an audience, we should be having the same kind of fun that we had in the third act of The Sting.

Why aren’t we?

And now, I have no real choice but to get into some vague SPOILERS… but definitely SPOILERS.

SPOILER ALERT

In the New Orleans first act, The Boy uses The Girl to run a game without her knowledge, then walks away, clearly hurting her (which we see in a sequence in which she is alone).

In the Buenos Aires second act, The Girl seems to have moved on, while The Boy professes that his walking away earlier was a mistake and that he wants her back… but she is with his mark. The question of who is playing who under multiple circumstances continues. But even as we go through the complicated path to the end of the film, The Girl never really gets her revenge on the bad behavior – real or fake – of The Boy from the first act.

And that is the missing second act.

There’s bit, not unlike an inverted version of the opening prologue in New York. She draws him in, then smacks him down. But it doesn’t play like she is really in control… maybe for a second or five, but that’s it.

This movie desperately needs a second act in which The Girl can beat The Boy with stakes that are not life and death. Then, when the Buenos Aires third act happens, the audience is fully committed to the idea that they could end up together or apart, her winning or him winning. The other problem that comes from the lack of The Boy getting beat is that the real tension of potential death is not really there in Buenos Aires.

Don’t get me wrong. I would still say that there are some flares in the final act of this film that are genius-level screenwriting. There are scenes that will play quite differently when you see this film a second time and will be even more of a pleasure.

And I can understand all kinds of reasons why the screenwriters decided to structure the story the way they did. There are, naturally, more open questions for the audience to try to follow when there is less story. Whatever kind of “win” The Girl might have over The Boy in my imagined second act, it would change some of the dynamics of the Buenos Aires act.

But the movie is out of balance. In fact, it gets even more out of balance as you work through the realities of the Buenos Aires sequence because The Girl’s limitations are even more problematic when you think about it. She really is reduced to The Girl. And the movie works hard to make her more than that… until it turns out that she is more sassy and sexy than real.

It doesn’t have to be The Lady Eve, where she is really smarter than him, but falling in love makes her “the sucker,” or even A Big Hand For The Little Lady, in which it turns out the two lovers are pretty even. I am not trying to claim to have The Answer to what the missing second act must be. Just that it is missing. It’s never really a fair fight.

There is so much to like about Focus. Many pleasures. Original ideas (within a genre context). The first seriously adult (read: middle-aged) performance by Will Smith. And this makes the failure to get over the final hurdle all the more frustrating.

It’s a mash-up, really, of a lot of great movies. But take away the mother from The Grifters and what have you got? Of course, Requa & Ficarra do bring a variation on The Mother and Pat Hingle with those oranges too. There are moments and ideas from all the films I have mentioned and more.

There was a moment that this film almost veered into the territory of 2014’s The Gambler, which I love, but is a very different film. That film, in being reinterpreted by William Monahan, lost a lot of The Girl (Lauren Hutton in the original). Why? I think it was because in Monahan’s less personal view (James Toback wrote the original about himself), there was no room for a Girl in that Boy’s road of self-destruction leading to redemption. So instead of making her an ornament, he just didn’t do much with her. Here, Ficarra & Requa absolutely make the relationship central. And as such, her in ability to balance the scales unbalanced the movie.

I’ll watch this film again… probably a few more times. There is so much of interest. But… so frustrating.

21 Responses to “Review: Focus (non-spoiler until marked)”

  1. Big G says:

    Not sure calling the black character “The Boy” is such a good idea.

  2. PJ says:

    I think I get you in that The Girl never got her revenge but I think that they may not have wanted to do that since they wanted to keep the relationship between the Boy and Girl “honest” to the audience. They really ended up compromising the Girls character though. Eh, that’s probably why it’s better to not think too hard about the movie.

  3. David Poland says:

    In the movie, the female lead is referred to repeatedly as “The Girl.” Calling him “The Boy” was nothing but a balance to that… and the fact that as someone who hasn’t seen the film (or even if you have), you;re not likely to connect to character names.

    Sorry if it seemed racial to you (or to anyone else)… but it’s not.

  4. David Poland says:

    I think people think harder than they realize about both movies. My observation started with a gut feeling. Giving it an answer was the only intellectualizing.

  5. Hallick says:

    “Not sure calling the black character “The Boy” is such a good idea.”

    In the context of this review, actually, it’s a pretty great idea. And definite articles make all the difference.

  6. Bulldog68 says:

    Being black, I took no offense to that whatsoever, and never for a million years read ‘The Boy” as being a racial thing in the movie context it was written. Sheeeesh.

  7. theschu says:

    I agree. The movie is a lot of fun and the two leads are really sexy together (Margot Robbie is a movie star) but it all doesn’t quite come together. SPOILERS One of the problems I had comes right in the middle when The Boy leaves The Girl. It happens so suddenly and seemingly without motivation that I felt like the girl trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Then there’s a huge leap forward in time. But why such a huge leap? I never quite got why 3 years and not something like 6 months or even 1 year. The characters all look the same. The only thing that’s really different is that his team has basically disappeared (which is slightly confusing. I kept waiting for them to show up again) and she’s a little more confident. It kind of ends up feeling like two sort-of related movies and I felt like the ending just sputtered when it should have snapped.

  8. Pete B. says:

    Can someone explain why this movie is in IMAX? Any reason to pay the extra surcharge?

  9. Bulldog68 says:

    I thought the movie was beautifully shot and seeing it in IMAX while not necessary would have been a plus.

  10. chris says:

    I think you’re dead on to point at The Girl as the problem. The movie would work much better if, like “Out of Sight” (at the time), they were stars of equal stature and it felt like a “fair fight.” But, as this role is written, it’s so unforgivably cruel to the female character that there’s no way a Charlize Theron, for instance, would have taken the part (I’m guessing this has to do with whatever rewrites had to be done to convince Will Smith to take the part?).

  11. Bulldog68 says:

    SPOILERS….SPOILERS…SPOILERS….

    I do think a major flaw in the movie is the unexplained transition and the way it was scripted when Smith went off to Buenos Aries.

    But I didn’t have as deep a problem as the rest of you with the role The Girl played. To me it would have been more the norm, movie wise for her to eventually be his equal, con wise, by the end of the movie, that’s what everyone expected. The fact that he was willing to use her as the “Blind Mouse” to the very end, is actually more of a challenge, giving the fact that he really did love her, or at least like her.

    Smith had his whole life to be a con man. Why should we expect that The Girl would be up to his level in such a short space of time, and giving the fact at the depths at which Smith and his cohorts would go to work a con. The point of the movie is that the Blind Mouse, is Blind.

  12. chris says:

    Well, then, maybe the problem is that The Girl is, essentially, the only woman in the entire film (is there another female who even speaks in it? I can’t recall one), which contributes to a feeling that the point of the movie is that women are weepy idiots.

  13. Bulldog68 says:

    I’m not reading that at all Chris. And I saw it with my wife, an accomplished banker in her own right, and she loved it. Not a comment made about the role making The Girl seem weak.

    All she was IMO was more inexperienced than Will Smith, and that’s the way it remained. If it were a con involving another younger male, would we say he was a weak character?

    Not every story has to evolve to the point where the student becomes the sensei.

  14. michael bergeron says:

    without revealing the spoilers … what happens at the end of the film is surprising but then we had heard about the “shoot him in the leg” scam earlier in the film … yet … what happens at the end makes no sense when the same characters had this big hotel room scene in the middle of the film that makes no sense in context of the ending of the film … give me “Nine Queens” or even “The Spanish Prisoner” anytime

  15. Bulldog68 says:

    The hotel room makes sense to me. They were selling the scam to the “Blind Mouse”.

  16. Cristian says:

    First Of all, I hope you can understand me, I’m from Buenos Aires, Argentina, AMD my english is not good.
    It reminds me a lot yo Nine Queens, a movie from muy country. It has an USA remake (awful) with Diego Luna named Criminals. If you can, watch Nine Queens (nueve reinas) and maybe you can see a lot pf similar things with it.

  17. Ray Pride says:

    9 QUEENS is so good.

  18. chris says:

    Count me in on “Nine Queens,” too, which actually had a pretty decent release in the US, Cristian. (It was around the beginning of the time when, from a US perspective, it started to look like Ricardo Darin is in every movie made in Argentina.)

  19. Anon says:

    You guys don’t get it. The whole movie was the ‘big’ con, which they refer to in a meta-manner “you mean the one where you get so rich you never have to work again, and you all buy yachts…that doesn’t happen.” It did happen over the course of the movie, which they both kind of laugh about as they approach the ER…if you as an audience aren’t in on their ‘big’ con, you will arrive at an ending that is slightly less impressive, but an ending you can live with nonetheless. If you’re in on the joke too, you share in the smirk and go see if the general public got it too…and they did not…

    He ‘broke her heart’ and left her in New Orleans so that EVERYONE on his team would hear about it and think it was real, and even his dad (their ultimate ‘mark’) would get wind of it, too. Then they give it a few years to stew and for it to be ‘history’ as far as the rest of the world is concerned, then go through this farce of emotions (which are likely being observed by someone – his dad, his friends, someone on a race car team – doesn’t matter who, as long as everyone is seeing the same thing)…the only person who needs to be convinced is the father, at the end…because he’s the master thief and the big mark…convince him that you’ve always been ‘soft’ and that you’re really a ‘good guy’, make him shoot you (that dumb Toledo panic switch term they used), hope you don’t die, have him profess the aforementioned things to you, give you the loot, and leave, feeling like he’s the jerk. But really they just played him for something like $150 million. That is the ending. That said, this movie’s dialogue was so sh*t and on the nose that it would only be confused as wit or good writing by a pack of fools. The concept was good and the filming was on par with the ‘crime thriller’ genre I suppose, but the writing wasn’t enough to lift this into a movie I’d ever watch again or recommend strongly to anyone.

  20. JP says:

    Um, ok. This feels like an explanation from a screenwriter whose screenplay fell flat on EVERYONE who saw the film they wrote.

    Everything about that movie was off, even though I liked it a lot. I agree with Dave and others that it felt like Soderbergh-lite. The best thing that came out of the movie was Margot Robbie, and I hope she gets better roles than Tarzan and Suicide Squad in the future-she holds up at least as well as J-Lo did in OOS.

    I thought the whole movie was better than the advertising and the release date implied-but parts of it, including the casting of BD Wong (who felt like a token character when he deserves better) and MAJOR DAD himself especially, were off.

    According to Mr. Poland, in the past, and I would like to hear him weigh in on this, Will Smith was a can’t miss, and the biggest box office star in the world for a long time.

    Besides Hitch, and Hancock, in the last ten years, where are we with biggest stars in the world numbers (lets not count MIB 3, because it was presold)? Can we get that instead of ‘male directors by year who were chosen with no hits to their name’? This project might have an endgame. Just saying…

  21. JP says:

    And FTR, I’ll put money on ‘Concussion’ and ‘The American Can’ doing ‘After Earth’-like numbers, even factoring in release dates.

    I would never count out Will Smith in anything, but it seems like the idea of ‘A LIST movie star’ is dead. People don’t go to see anything with ‘A List Star X’ anymore. It just doesn’t happen. I would like to hear people weigh in on who is bankable and who isn’t. The studio system is supposedly on its way out, but the question is, if you ran any studio in America, what 10 stars would you bank on, and why?

    It’s a tough question, because the Marvel movies make bank, but the outside numbers for those stars don’t. I’m asking this out of ignorance, because I don’t follow box office numbers, especially international, like everyone here.

    I’m making a ballpark without looking at any numbers, but the only people I can come up with are Jolie, Damon, Cooper, Cruise, Hanks, Leo, Bullock, Denzel…who else?

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“The important thing is: what makes the audience interested in it? Of course, I don’t take on any roles that don’t interest me, or where I can’t find anything for myself in it. But I don’t like talking about that. If you go into a restaurant and you have been served an exquisite meal, you don’t need to know how the chef felt, or when he chose the vegetables on the market. I always feel a little like I would pull the rug out from under myself if I were to I speak about the background of my work. My explanations would come into conflict with the reason a movie is made in the first place — for the experience of the audience — and that, I would not want.
~  Christoph Waltz

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.