“Yes, it’s a fun caper movie. But please stop making films like this,” begged Sophie Gilbert in her review of Focus in The Atlantic. Why, you may wonder, would a critic plead for Hollywood — in a cinematic era so overstuffed with explosive artifice that hardly anything is truly fun — to put a moratorium on whatever fun is still out there? Because Focus, it turns out, is not just a depthlessly enjoyable rollick; as it attempts to mindfuck you to awestruck unconsciousness, it assumes your fucked mind will euphorically dismiss what turns out to be a pretty flagrant display regressive gender politics. The film flounders because, once you realize the characters are old-fashioned archetypes with pasts tacked on in a slapdash attempt at humanization, you stop wanting to follow Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie) down their sexy, glitzy, and yes, uncritically male-hegemonic rabbit hole — regardless of whatever heavy-handedly aphrodisiac location (New Orleans, Buenos Aires) the film decides to send them to.
That’s not to say that the imperceptible line between care and deceit among con artists duos (and they seem to always come in duos) doesn’t make for great cinema. Quite the contrary; if Focus’ own writing/directing duo (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) get anything right, it’s in making a film that’s inherently reminiscent of better works in the genre, works that portray intriguingly fluctuating — or at least critically static — power dynamics. So perhaps we should co-opt the film’s dictatorial title and shift our focus to superiorly conceived dynamics among onscreen con duos.
I Love You Phillip Morris (dir. Glenn Ficarra & John Requa)
It’s only fair to start this off with another con film by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa: I Love You Phillip Morris far outdoes Focus in the complexity of the central crooks’ physical, emotional and sometimes professional relationship. In Focus, inanely crass humor (the film’s comic relief character gets his big moment with a series of completely stupid lesbian jokes) falls flat because it’s not being used to counterbalance anything weightier. In I Love You Phillip Morris, however, Jim Carrey’s flair for gross absurdity comes as a foil to the film’s dealings with societal ostracism (its crooks are a gay couple in the ’80s and ’90s), the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and the eventual, harrowing notion of spending the rest of one’s entire life in prison.