I couldn’t help thinking of New York Times columnist David Brooks while watching the Will Smith caper flick Focus earlier this week.
In Focus, Nicky (Smith) is a hood with a penchant for social science, a suave criminal who understands the importance of vetting one’s marks and employing various psychological "nudges" to get them to do what you want.
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We see it early on, when Nicky is teaching Jess (Margot Robbie) the tricks of the trade: a tap here to distract from a lifted wallet there, locking eyes so the victim doesn’t notice a tricksy finger. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time, we’re told, and criminals who understand how to manipulate that fact are well positioned to alleviate rubes of their belongings.
Focus is split neatly into two halves. The first takes place during a Super Bowl-like event in New Orleans, during which we see how Nicky and his crew have turned petty crime—pickpocketing and watch stealing and luggage pilfering and card sharping—into big business. It is here that Nicky and Jess fall for each other. But it is also where she sees his ability to use people, to get them to do exactly what he wants when he wants it. It is where he breaks her heart.
Three years later, Nicky has his sights set on a new scam. He’s in South America, working for Formula One owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). The racecar mogul is looking to take down the competition by passing along a fake fuel efficiency formula. Nicky will be his double agent, much to the displeasure of Owens (Gerald McRaney), who doesn’t like what he sees in the con man’s eyes.
But just as his plan is about to get underway, the girl comes back in the picture. Nicky sees Jess at a party, draped over Garriga. They’re together. And it breaks his heart.
The best thing about Focus, as with any successful caper flick, is that you are never quite certain when the con is on and when it’s off. You’re constantly kept off balance, wondering where a scam picks up and where it ends. Lies and truth are indistinguishable. Unfortunately, the film relies a bit too much on magical coincidences—the biggest of which, Jess’ reappearance, forms the emotional core of the movie.
Will Smith remains one of the most charming actors working today. His onscreen charisma is undeniable and, like Tom Cruise, he doesn’t seem to age. He brings the same bubbly energy and the same perpetual baby-faced "aw shucks" grin to the table that he did 20 years ago. Margot Robbie, meanwhile, shows that The Wolf of Wall Street was no fluke and brings some real steam to the proceedings.
McRaney’s performance may have been my favorite, however. His evolution from Major Dad into the go-to, bad-assed, nerves-of-steel oldster—seen in Deadwood, House of Cards, and now Focus—has been a pleasure to watch.