You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

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Focus is an entertaining con man caper with enough plot twists and charismatic characters to keep its audience pleasantly engaged and outsmarted. When the charming and handsome Nicky (Will Smith) meets the beautiful and flirtatious Jess (Margot Robbie) he introduces her into his world of the well-planned pocket heist. To quote Liam Neeson in the highly successful Taken franchise, Nicky “has a very particular set of skills,” and he wants to impart those skills to his gorgeous new protégée.

The scenes in which Nicky teaches Jess his craft are the most fascinating of the film. We watch as a team of thieves work gracefully and collaboratively to distract, steal, and conceal in one nearly seamless action. Nicky is kind of a modern day Fagin who oversees a team of confidence men (and women) as they work in sync to lift watches, wallets, credit cards, and jewelry from unsuspecting “marks.” But these thieves aren’t homeless, starving young waifs forced by circumstances into a life of crime; they are intelligent, skilled, well-dressed adults who could earn an honest living but choose instead to steal from others. Moreover, the “marks” in most confidence capers are slightly shady themselves, so the audience feels that they deserve to be bilked. As W. C. Fields famously opined, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

In many ways a confidence man is like a magician, skillfully using misdirection, charm, and sleight of hand to trick the audience into looking the wrong way.

But in these scenes where Nicky and his team teach Jess the tricks of the trade, they are indeed cheating honest men and women — they are stealing from people who are simply withdrawing money from an ATM, paying a restaurant bill, making their way through a crowd, or apologizing for seeming to have bumped into someone. It’s hard for the audience to laugh at the poor schmucks getting fleeced on the screen when they are doing what we all do, every day. We are amazed and unsettled at the same time — and we might even reach for our wallets to make sure they haven’t been lifted while our focus was on Focus.

In many ways a confidence man is like a magician, skillfully using misdirection, charm, and sleight of hand to trick the audience into looking the wrong way. One of the reasons we are attracted to this genre is that we want to know how they do it, and that contributes to the enjoyment of this film. Good film directors are also adept at using misdirection to create an “aha” moment for the audience, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have the requisite skills to set us up for a satisfying romp. Just be sure to hold onto your wallet if someone happens to tap you on the shoulder.

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