Focus: Smith and Robbie zing but the plot falls flat

Will Smith is a movie star. An A-lister. Granted he’s been off his game lately, but he’s not done with the box office yet. And Margot Robbie is a rising talent and undeniably one of the most beautiful actresses working today. Sticking the two of them together in a caper about con artists seems like a good idea on paper. They can both hold the screen and chances are they’ll have good chemistry. If you can sense a but coming that’s because there is – and more than one in fact.

Films about conning are notoriously tricky these days, probably because as an audience we’ve seen it all before and this one goes to great lengths to spell out every con just in case you miss anything. ‘Remember, it’s all about focus’, Smith’s legendary con artist Nicky explains, showing raw talent Jess (Robbie) how it’s done in an early scene. ‘You focus here whilst I steal from here’, he teaches her as they dance round each other. She’s hooked. Talk about smooth criminal.

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With this sophisticated, knowledgeable guy and the raw, sassy girl you’ve got a tale that’s been told plenty of times before – often in a better way too. The Oceans films spring to mind, as does Confidence, a lesser known one with Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman. Maybe the film is called Focus because our focus is drawn towards thinking this is about conning when actually that’s a backdrop and the filmmakers are more interested in the romance to drive the whole thing along. In that sense also reminds me of Mr & Mrs Smith and Out of Sight.

Plot wise it’s fairly light. Maybe light is the wrong word, predictable or pedestrian is more on the money. What we have is guy meets girl, guy teaches girl a few things and cuts her loose (not before falling for her). Guy meets girl again on a job, she causes him to lose ‘focus’ and things don’t go to plan.

Sound familiar?

There’s nothing wrong with telling the same story again, but you’ve got to put a new spin on it. Here, writer-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (who last gave us Crazy Stupid Love in 2011) don’t really push the envelope at all. You’ve got Will Smith as your lead, test his mettle. His character, Nicky, is supposed to be a legendary con artist yet the situations he finds himself in never feel that dangerous or mentally challenging. What he needed was a proper adversary, perhaps some other criminal who he’s wronged in the past or stolen his girl… or something.

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What he’s given comes in the film’s final third in the shape of the owner of a racing car team played by Rodrigo Santoro. He’s far too vanilla for a bad guy, he turns up too late in the movie, and consequently feels incidental to the whole thing. Maybe it should have just turned into a game of one-upmanship, with Nicky and Jess conning and out conning each other in a sort of twisty, seductive criminal dance.

That would have been a good movie to see. But we didn’t get that. What we got was a fairly satisfactory – but not groundbreaking – tale with some nice performances from the two leads, but in a film you’ll have all but forgotten five minutes out of the cinema.

American Hustle: another stone cold zinger from David O. Russell?

Big hair, big actors, big performances and small dresses. That’s what you get from this latest offering by writer-director David O. Russell – the man behind award winning films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.american-hustle

Set in the ’70s and loosely following the FBI Abscam operation, we start with our main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), sporting a hairy paunch and possibly the best combover since Bill Murray in Kingpin.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and the pair fall for each other, becoming a successful con artist couple until getting busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI man trying to make a name for himself.PDC - Best Films - American Hustle DiMaso convinces the pair to set up various politicians, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), which then leads his operation onto bigger fish, namely mobsters.

There’s the setup. There’s a lot more but suffice to say that films featuring con artists often have numerous double crosses, shady backhanders and ambiguous motives galore. It’s essentially the director playing the three cups game with the audience. Just when you think you know which cup hides the plot twist, boom, deception!

That said, the con part of this film isn’t hugely tough to follow, the plot ticks along nicely. The whole Abscam thing almost more of a backdrop to allow O. Russell to showcase a host of interesting characters. In short, this is a character study.

Indeed, it’s a character driven movie with Irving front and centre as the driving force. Plaudits already seem to be going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – the former Irving’s mistress the latter his unhinged wife, Rosalyn – yet it’s Bale who anchors the whole thingAmy-Adams -American-Hustle--02 with a commanding yet vulnerable performance; as a man who recognises his place in the criminal world and feels control gradually slipping from his grasp.

Amy Adams’ Sydney is partly responsible for Irving’s loss of control. Blaming him for getting her busted in the first place, she puts herself in the centre of a love triangle between Irving and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. Is she conning them both? Does she have genuine feelings for DiMaso? Huge credit to Adams for leading us down this sexy garden path with a fiercely seductive performance yet… she’s similar to Irving. The deeper she goes the more she feels things are spinning out of control.

Enter DiMaso. Cooper’s portrayal of an ambitious – and possibly quite naive – FBI man is yet another feather in O. Russell’s cap – and Cooper’s too. He charges about the place, manipulating Irving and Sydney, intimidating his boss (brilliantly played by Louis C.K.) yet he’s the same… never quite in control, mentally or emotionally.

And if we’re on the subject of emotional control, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn gives a masterclass in how to be an unmanageable wife. Jennifer-Lawrence -American-Hustle--04Furiously demanding Irving’s attention and love, setting fire to the science oven (microwaves were just coming out), getting him in trouble with the mob. Perhaps this is all summed up in one beautiful scene where she sings ‘Live and let die’ whilst furiously cleaning.

So… coming back to my title, is this a zinger? Well, mostly. It’s a great film, lots of fun. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of The Fighter or the intricate nuances of Silver Linings Playbook, but there’s no doubt it will pick up a stack of awards. And it shows that, with O.Russell we’ve got a director who’s found his ’70s flair and shared the secret with his mad, bad cast. Groovy baby.