Movie review 'Focus': A slick film, with shaky ‘focus’

Published Mar 13, 2015, 8:52 pm IST
Updated Mar 29, 2019, 3:41 pm IST
The film presents the art of misdirection/deception as a clever series of tricks, but are unable to invest it with a real sense of wonder
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: Two-and-a-half stars 
If you haven’t already come across one of his performance videos or his famous TED talk on “The Art of Misdirection”, I’d recommend that you look up Apollo Robbins right now. He’s variously known as a master in the art of sleight-of-hand and of pick-pocketing, a “gentleman thief”. He can do everything from take the nib off a fountain pen you might happen to have in your possession (and you wouldn’t know about it until you’d pulled it out to write with) or change clothes in front of an auditorium full of people, without them registering the difference. Oh, and he always returns what he “steals”. His work on how the human brain can be manipulated has been of much interest to intelligence agencies in the US.
So why are we talking about Apollo Robbins today? Because he’s the consultant on the new film Focus, starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie as con artistes, well-versed in the “art of misdirection”.
The story begins with Nicky (Will Smith, looking fairly jaded, and not wholly because his character requires it) who decides to impart a few lessons in sleight of hand to a fledgling con artiste, Jess (Robbie). He tells her what she’s doing wrong, shows her how lightness of touch can be accentuated by a few psychological tricks to steal with much greater success. He even tells her a little bit about his chequered family history — having a father and grandfather who were both “in the game”, who taught him the tricks of the trade. Jess is enthralled enough that when Nicky moves on to a bigger gig — a Super Bowl football championship in New Orleans — she follows him there and convinces him to take her on in his gang. So begins a virtual fiesta of pick-pocketing, staging scenes at airports, hotels to steal tourists’ luggage, skimming ATM cards and machines for credit card information — the scale of operations is staggering indeed. When Jess asks Nicky why he’s going for smaller targets, albeit in greater numbers, he tells her that it’s by increasing the volume (but keeping the amounts stolen relatively small) that they escape detection. And indeed, by the end of the gig, they have a cool 1.2 million dollars in the bag.
When Nicky and Jess meet three years later (he abandons her rather abruptly after the New Orleans, ending their professional — and personal — relationship) volume is no longer what he’s after. He’s now in for the big money, the big deceptions, working for a Formula One team owner who wants to protect the edge his new engine technology gives his cars, at all costs. Nicky’s engaged in a game of espionage, and the situation is further confounded by Jess’ presence as the team owner’s girlfriend.
From then onwards, the film follows all the twists and turns that are necessary to keep you hooked to the end. Also, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manage to “misdirect” the audience’s attention just about enough to ensure that the final denouement is a fair bit of a surprise. They’re helped by their good-looking stars and the good-looking locations, which helps you overlook (if not entirely forget) the fairly average story.
So what’s the problem with Focus? Maybe that, at times, it can seem as jaded as Will Smith. Or maybe that it has all the right tricks, but not the right heart or soul.
In a profile on Apollo Robbins in the New Yorker a few years ago, he had described his most ambitious trick — on he hasn’t yet found a way to pull off, but dreams of nevertheless. Robbins said at the beginning of one of his shows, he wants to give every member in the audience an envelope and a red paper heart. He’ll ask them to seal the heat in the envelope and then place it their purse or pocket. At the end of the show, he’ll open his hand and show that he’s holding onto a paper heart. He’ll point to a member of the audience and ask him/her to open his/her envelope—it’ll be empty. And then, Robbins said he’ll start pulling out hundreds of paper hearts from his pockets, and every member of the audience will open their envelope and find it empty. It’ll be the only time, Robbins says, that he won’t give back what he steals.
It is that spirit of magic, of wonder, involved in the craft it is all about, that is lacking in Focus.