Focus keeps viewers guessing

In a few years someone’s going to write a small novel on the narrative significance of this gambling scene. It’s major audience manipulation and works on more levels that I can really understand on just one viewing. Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Focus is a truly unpredictable movie, one that lies to the audience as much as its con man main character lies to his marks.

It’s tough to say what the film is about as a whole. It’s really broken down into five acts, two of which each have their own individual three act divisions. First, Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) heads a large group of purse snatchers through New Orleans in the lead up to Super Bowl XLVIII. Then, after an extended, gripping but somehow irrelevant gambling sequence, they’re in Buenos Aires ripping off F1 racers.

It’s very much a romantic comedy about star-crossed pickpockets Spurgeon and Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), but the romance is downplayed and most of the jokes are washboard flat. The appeal of the movie is in how well it manipulates the viewer.

From a technical perspective, it’s a bizarre blend of beautiful, intricate shots and apparent, obvious mistakes. There are several clever reflection shots, most of which don’t seem like reflections until they are revealed. Rack focus is used extensively, but to no discernible storytelling purpose. Continuity errors are a consistent problem, with particularly glaring mistakes in the film’s otherwise great love scenes.

It also incorporates some satire elements aimed at heist movies, though that satire is inconsistent. Sometimes they mention tools as unbelievable as a wireless keylogging device, only to reveal it as a sham, but then they turn around and mention subliminal mind control and something called a fuel-burn algorithm with a straight face.

I want to see this movie again. A lot of the shots I’m not understanding are the kind of shots that indicate duplicity from the characters or the cameraman. Knowing what’s going to happen, they may make much more sense.

Apparently, this movie was initially planned to be much, much worse. Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart were supposed to lead, because an off-balance rom-com starring the two least respected actors in Hollywood right now is a totally marketable idea.

As difficult to get a handle on as the film’s intent is, it’s much easier to figure out who would like it. It deftly sidesteps most of the major pitfalls of romantic comedy and heist movies while retaining those genre’s appeal and keeping a bright spotlight on Smith and Robbie, both of whom are way too good for a standard rom-com. Focus is just as enjoyable for veteran film goers for whom these kinds of stories have become stale as it is for a rookie.

It’s refreshing to see something so asymmetrical, something that can truly keep even a genre-savvy audience guessing. This is a movie that could and should be lauded for years because of its enthralling, absolutely outlandish narrative structure.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. We need to stop getting excited about snow in Texas. It’s not unusual anymore. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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