Of Con Men And Dames: How Margot Robbie Gets Robbed In 'Focus'
Focus, starring Will Smith as a smoothie con man with a heart of gold, is trying very hard to be a kind of film that only works when it seems effortless. Specifically, it seems to be engineered to be a close relative of Steven Soderbergh's 2001 Ocean's Eleven, in which beautiful people participate in tricky schemes dressed in cool clothes in gorgeous surroundings, surprising even the audience with their cleverness.
Smith plays Nicky, who we meet as he's scamming his way into a New York restaurant without a reservation. There, he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), a beautiful blonde (hair color being normally irrelevant to character except in situations in which beautiful blondes are blondes because the movie seems to have conceived them as types more than humans). He and Jess have an initial Meet Cute, then there's a turn, then there's another turn, and ... well, he winds up teaching her to be a better pickpocket, is the long and short of it, and they become, for a while, partners. And ... partners.
The trick to a good con man in the movies — particularly an impeccably dressed, effortlessly charming one — is weaknesses. What makes George Clooney as Danny Ocean so wonderful is, in part, that he seems so close to washed up and he seems to need this big score so badly. His friend Rusty (Brad Pitt) is hardly using his talents to the best of his ability: we find him, in an inspired sequence, teaching poker to a bunch of spoiled-brat actors, taking their money because they're stupid and it's easy. These guys are gorgeous and charming, but they are, and the movie admits that they are, about two degrees of rotation from being straight-up pitiable.
Nicky, on the other hand, seems to have the world on a string. He gets the better of Jess, easily, and then schools her — and he's on top of everything, always. She's always out of the loop, she's always a petty pickpocket with no greater skills than that, and she never knows what Nicky has planned. In short, we are told over and over (and over) in lots of ways that he's much smarter than she is, and she'll never be able to keep up, which makes her pretty uninteresting to follow.
What would have really helped the movie would have been a lot more confidence in Jess to be not just pretty and a pickpocket but a match for Nicky. Romantic comedies — which is part of what they want this movie to be — rely on people who are reasonably evenly matched. Smith is much older than Robbie; it would reduce the distraction of that fact if it didn't seem like she was gazing upon him over and over again, purely in awe of everything he was doing. If she seemed at any time to have the spunk and backbone to actually participate in the world Nicky lives in as anything other than an accessory, she would have been a lot more compelling.
[As a side note, this certainly is not the only problem with the movie. It also falls massively short of the visual style it's going for. Its approach to New York seems derivative of every movie about Vegas (weird but true), and I was surprised to find myself staring at a snowscape where they chose to shoot a pickpocket training sequence, thinking, "That could have been done literally anywhere, and it's just not a very attractive shot." I assume it was chosen because the white background helps the pickpocket moves stand out, but it just looks awkward.]
Robbie is coolly gorgeous in this film; she can do the work that this movie needs, if only they'd given it to her. In the brief interludes in which she seems to have her feet under her, she's charming and funny, and every time she starts to stick up for herself, the movie starts to get air under it. But always, always, she's undercut by the discovery that she has no idea what's going on. Dumb old Jess, the poor dumb pickpocket who ought to just do as she's told, lest she get herself in trouble.
The funny thing about Ocean's Eleven is that it gets around this problem by not trying to make Julia Roberts part of the gang. She doesn't know what's going on — and her desire not to know is justified by her bad experiences loving a con man, not by her inability to comprehend — but they don't pretend she does. They don't prop her up within the group and then treat her like a paper doll, which is the sad fate that befalls Robbie's Jess. (It also features cons that are much more interesting than anything Nicky does. One of his major moves, once he explains it to Jess later, turns out to somehow be both farfetched and dull.)
I found myself waiting and waiting for a victory for Jess. Spoiler alert: it never came. I wanted her to show her mettle, to turn out to be smarter than Nicky (who consistently condescends to her) gives her credit for, and to be the best kind of dame in a fizzy romantic caper movie — the equal partner who may not look like one on the surface and who lives to be underestimated and then make you pay for it.
The tricky balance in a movie like Focus is that a con man with no vulnerabilities (childhood sadness doesn't actually count) is just a predator, if you think about it. A con man with vulnerabilities is a predator too, but in the same way you can feel for Hans Gruber in Die Hard in part because he's constantly having to troubleshoot, a con man who is outfoxed from time to time, or who's clinging to his last shot at beating the house, is massively more interesting than one who isn't. A good con artist can't win 'em all.
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