Saturday, February 28, 2015

Two for the Money: FOCUS

Focus is a shiny package that offers fleeting, but reliable, pleasures of moviegoing. It has attractive people in beautiful locations wearing gorgeous clothes engaging in wittily plotted preposterous schemes. It stars two glamorous, charming movie stars, an old pro near the height of his powers (Will Smith) and a young up-and-comer more than ready to take the spotlight (Margot Robbie). They meet cute as she, an aspiring scam artist, fails to swindle him, a veteran con man, in a hotel bar. He agrees to help hone her powers of observation, to shift her mark’s focus with one gesture while picking a pocket with the other. Besides, he needs a pretty and clever girl to help pull off his latest schemes. They have a flirtatious early scene lifting items off each other mid conversation, trading rings and wallets, testing skill. It’s easy to believe they’re both so charming they could pull off such delicate, intimate slight of hand with ease.

That also happens to be how writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (of the sly I Love You Phillip Morris and sappy Crazy Stupid Love) get away with making a featherlight and empty picture like this feel fun and diverting in the moment. The movie's so charming it’s easy to lose focus on how ephemeral its effects are. You don’t even feel 100 minutes slipping away. It's familiar, but cool. Of course the con man appears to fall for the con woman as their complicated schemes go well, or not. There are double crossings and ulterior motives, shady side characters and elaborately convoluted clockwork timing. It’s a movie of globetrotting, big bags of money, wine, watches, cars, and likable career criminals. Bursting with handsome, sleek cinematography that’s practically glittering, nighttime glows with warm light, daytime burns bright and colorful. It’s a cool look.

And the filmmakers know what they’re doing with this surface cool. The film keeps a tight focus on Smith and Robbie as they court and con their way through trust-no-one schemes that are simpler than you’d think, but complicated to unravel the surprises. We start in New Orleans, where Smith is running an elaborate set of cons around a big football game. After some satisfying hijinks and romance, the movie switches gears, jumping to Buenos Aires for another con, longer and more elaborate with an even tighter focus on our leads. They’re charismatic in that con artist way of never entirely knowing just how deep their feelings for each other go. Are they using each other? Or is it really love? It’s not a particularly deep or interesting characterization, but either way there’s undeniable sparkle in their repartee and satisfaction in seeing them react to twists in the plot.

Ficarra and Requa have fun with a variety of shell game set pieces, from street-level scams to high-stakes betting and finally high-risk corporate espionage. Along the way we meet a bumbling master thief (Adrian Martinez), a brusk security man (Gerald McRaney), a high-rolling gambler (BD Wong), and a slippery racecar owner (Rodrigo Santoro). They’re an eccentric and slimy enough rouges gallery we can watch Smith in sharp suits and Robbie in stunning dresses flirt and fool their way into and out of lots of money without feeling bad about their victims. Everyone’s playing some sort of game here, and the screenplay unveils its twists and turns with fine relish. In the end, the flashiness fizzles – when the credits rolled I thought, that’s it?  But there’s something to be said for an enjoyably slight diversion that just wants to charm and dazzle with alluring megawatt star power and formulaic genre charms. Its surface pleasures go down silky smooth.

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