FOCUS (2015, Glen Ficarra & John Requa)
Fast-paced, luxurious, attractive, and entertaining, FOCUS would be easy to write off as a style exercise, another con-artist romp with nothing to say but plenty of tricks up its sleeve. But how about we don’t take the easy way out? So much emphasis is placed on the love story at the heart of it, that it becomes clear that this con game is really just a gloss on a fundamental tale about honesty in relationships. And what’s more, it doesn’t settle on the trite cliche that love is about being honest — its real message is that if you succeed in life by being deceptive and manipulative, then your best match is someone who appreciates and enables that. Kind of curious, and perhaps wrong-headed, but interesting nonetheless.
Ficarra & Requa’s other two directorial efforts, I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS and CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE. were also about con men, suave tricksters, and finding whom you’re meant to be with when you’re used to being deceptive. FOCUS is just as strong a comment on how love complicates our need to deceive both ourselves and other people, but it’s also a pretty cool package. For one thing, the costume design is out-of-control great. Modern-day films, especially lighter fare, never win Oscars for Costume Design, but Dayna Pink’s work here is the star of several scenes: the clothes and accessories define the characters as not only who they are to themselves, but whom they want to be for their marks. There’s a seductiveness to every pair of pants or sunglasses, even when they’re worn by actors as unattractive (but very talented) as Adrian Martinez.
I wish I could say the same for Jan Kovac’s editing. This is his debut feature and it shows. Perhaps he did the best with the coverage he was given, but the results on screen are troubling. Luckily he’s saved by the star wattage of Smith and Robbie (the latter of which is every bit as electric as her seasoned co-star), as well as a script that’s full of surprises. Ficarra and Requa seem to know all the tropes of con man movies, so they lead the audience to expect one twist and then deliver a completely different one. And they do this numerous times. All too often this leads to Robbie just getting amusingly mad at Smith for tricking her, but even still the narrative is fleet and intelligent. The best sequence takes place at the Super Bowl, giving BD Wong one scene to upstage everyone else in the film and create a hilariously memorable villain. This is one sequence you can say is all about surface pleasures, but oh, what pleasures.