Hollywood, that shimmering city upon hills, has a race problem. And a gender problem. And lots of other problems, like earthquakes and mudslides, and abysmally low vaccination rates and Scientology. At first glance, Focus, which stars Will Smith as a 46-year-old Millennial with secret pain, might appear to address at least one of these problems—it’s based on an original screenplay by directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind Crazy Stupid Love), and it stars a hugely successful black actor in a role that hardly even glances at race. It has an entertaining, James Bondish-premise—Smith’s character, Nicky Spurgeon, is a con man who travels all around the world pursuing a career that looks complicated but essentially involves petty theft.
But it’s also a film so backward in its treatment of women that it makes you wonder if its creators were raised by Trappists. It’s a movie that Gamergate participants will unabashedly love, in that there is only one woman in it, she is insanely beautiful, all she does in the film is wear minimal clothing and ask men to impart all their manly wisdom, and all the men do in her presence is talk about “hitting that” and distract her with sparkly pink flower necklaces and imagine her having sex with other women and complain that she’s having “the world’s longest period.”
It might surprise you (it does me!) that movies like this still get made without anyone poking their head in to point out that not all wives are nagging shrews, and not all beautiful women are “skanks,” and not all men are experts whose wisdom women crave with every fiber of their Juicy Coutured beings. And yet here we are. In the movie’s opening scene, Nicky is quietly enjoying dinner and a bottle of red wine when Jess (Margot Robbie) runs up to his table and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend, ostensibly because she’s on a bad date. He offers her a drink, she asks how he knows so much about difficult things like wine, and they agree that it’s all very complicated. They retire to her room, her angry “husband” storms in, and it becomes clear that she’s trying to con him. Only he, Nicky Spurgeon, is the world’s most brilliant con man, and he won’t give them his money, but he will make fun of them for being so amateur, tell them how much he likes boobs, and then walk away.
After this, Jess decides to ask Nicky if he can train her in his debonair-criminal ways. “Tutor me,” she says. “I was a dyslexic foster kid. It’s amazing I’m not a hooker right now.” He teaches her some basic thievery skills, she follows him to New Orleans and gets inducted into his crew, a high-tech and well-organized band of people who pretend to be artists but are essentially pickpockets. Jess gets dressed up in a neon-pink, skin-tight Barbie gown, whereupon they find that her ability to distract men appears to be useful. One of the things they steal is also neon-pink, the aforementioned flower necklace, and Jess pouts and cries when Nicky won’t let her keep it. After they sleep together, she asks him for “an exit interview.”
Following this, there are highs (B.D. Wong playing a mustachioed super-rich playboy with a gambling problem) and there are lows (B.D. Wong hearing Jess try to advise Nicky not to bet so high and telling Nicky that “she sounds like my wife”). Nicky tells Jess to “put some clothes on—there are Australians here.” It’s never exactly clear who’s conning whom, which is what makes things fun. And this is the truly sad part—it’s a fun movie. Smith is vaguely world-weary as Nicky, and his charisma is more than sufficient to carry a goofy 100-minute caper film. A movie predicated on having more twists than the Monte Carlo Grand Prix can often become oddly predictable, because everyone is lying, so nothing is as it seems, so what’s actually going on can sometimes be fairly obvious. But Focus does a good job of keeping its final card a mystery. It has glamorous locales (Buenos Aires, NOLA, New York) and clever layers of deception, and it’s always enjoyable to watch master criminals at work.
Supporting actors include Rodrigo Santoro playing Garriga, a spoiled race-team owner whom Jess uses to make Nicky jealous, Gerald McRaney as Garriga’s angry associate, and Adrian Martinez as a foulmouthed, sullen, obese thief named Farhad whom Jess inexplicably adores. Santoro and McRaney are enjoyably evil; Martinez seems to have no good reason for being in the film other than to provide visual comedy with his fatness and to mime things women do when he imagines them having sex with each other. And then there’s Robbie, such a dynamic actress in The Wolf of Wall Street, who gets nothing to do here except bat her eyelashes at men and try to imbue her character with humanity. This she does, despite the fact that Jess is a professional thief who’s also apparently guileless. She’s the ultimate Cool Girl—a gorgeous, sweet, supportive, astute piece of eye candy who isn’t averse to getting slapped around. “I like you honey,” says one character to her in a concluding scene. “You can take a punch.”
Is Jess an exemplar of what men want or of what men think women are actually like? She seduces people because she wants to steal from them. She falls in love with someone because he can teach her things about the world, whether it’s what wine to drink or which shoulder to tap a person on when you’re stealing their wallet. In one scene, Nicky talks about how easy women are to manipulate—you appeal to their emotions, the “fuzzy stuff,” you buy them gifts that act as talismans and remind them of you, you play on shared connections and past history, and pay attention to body language. But if it’s so easy to guess what women want, why is this movie so utterly devoid of any of it? This isn’t a stereotypically masculine action drama, or a John Wick-esque 90-minute killing spree. It’s a caper film, one that has its roots in The Thomas Crown Affair and The Italian Job and the infinitely superior The Brothers Bloom. It is also, according to Wikipedia, a “dark romantic comedy.” “Dark,” presumably, because its understanding of 51 percent of the moviegoing population is so archaic it simply belongs to an era that precedes electricity.