The con-artist couple of Trouble in Paradise (1932) — the finest of all screwball comedies — matched male and female wits, playing romantic confidence games with the sexual freedom allowed during Hollywood’s pre-Code era. Yet there was never any doubt that Gaston and Lily (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) shared an adult, worldly love. There’s no such certainty in Will Smith’s new film Focus, a screwed-up comedy for an era when neither sexual license nor love requires any basic creed or moral certainty.
Nicky (Smith) meets Jess (Margot Robbie) while they’re working separate cons in New York. “Teach me,” Jess entreats, and she doesn’t mean just the tricks of Nicky’s trade. Their sexual involvement has the blatancy of our hip-hop, HBO era: crude, unromantic boot-knocking that matches Nicky’s heartless underworld doings; he heads a team of high-stakes pickpockets and con-artists. Taking Jess into his gang and his bed, Nicky instructs her in racketeering and sexual profligacy: “We’re in the volume business.”
The corporate lingo of Focus’s flirtation, by which Nicky trains Jess to keep an eye on her victim as well as her heart (though she never learns the difference), lets Smith speak Hollywoodese, the con-man’s cant. It demonstrates that Smith is, himself, in the volume business; his obvious desperation for a box-office hit to succeed the flop of his perplexing sci-fi, father–son morality tale, After Earth, proves that he doesn’t believe film art can be a pyrrhic victory or noble failure. Only high-stakes gambling — and winning big — counts. There hasn’t been “entertainment” this odious since Brangelina’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Will Smith’s combo of unmaskable anxiety and despondency kills any playfulness. His eyes look bloodshot, his face appears drawn, even his shirtless pectorals seem feigned (or gymed). It’s a relief that Nicky and Jess ignore black–white racial differences, especially since Robbie’s typecasting (since playing the slutty wife in The Wolf of Wall Street) suggests a New Meat trashiness that is not convincingly amorous. This con-artist duo is more craven than romantic. The swanky international gamboling of Nicky and Jess’s love-and-con games doesn’t delight as Hollywood high-life used to; movie paradise is in trouble.
Basing a film plot on deceitful characters is a crude excuse for no imagination — fooling the audience, then over-explaining the gimmick. You can never trust what you’re shown. Bummer. The writing-directing team, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, don’t have the wit of Trouble in Paradise’s Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson; they’re just unabashedly cynical. Keeping their eyes on this era’s venal commercialism (cinematographer Xavier Grobet flashes glitzier images than the Oceans 11–13 franchise), they turn Focus into a glamorized rip-off. Cheating the romantic impulse that Lubitsch explored, they favor distrust, sarcasm, and dishonesty. Ficarra and Requa advance the grotesquerie that Quentin Tarantino brought to cinema (a last-minute medical procedure pays gruesome homage to Pulp Fiction).
Nicky’s boast, “I can convince anyone of anything. I once convinced a man that an empty warehouse was the Federal Reserve,” is more Hollywoodese. Smith angles to regain his box-office mojo post–After Earth and the abominable Men in Black III with this empty warehouse of clichés. But Focus damages Smith’s former hit-making charisma, which at one time affirmed the social advancement of hip-hop subculture into mainstream prominence and cultural authority. Smith has never fulfilled that promise, and this film’s criminal subtext (including Nicky’s macho defensiveness and his daddy issues) is just unlikable. It squanders Smith’s potential to go beyond hip-hop clichés. Nicky repeats them as proverbial (reducing the world to “two kinds of people: hammers and nails”).
Hooking up with Tarantinoesque cynics, Smith turns his back on After Earth’s challenge. Ficarra and Requa, who did the loathsome Bad Santa as well as Jim Carrey’s affecting and hilarious I Love You, Phillip Morris, cater to Smith’s commercial worries — Hollywood’s spiritually and politically empty warehouse. It may prove a shrewd commercial bet, but Focus is an artistic loss.
Paradise in trouble is the explicit theme of David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Based on a Bruce Wagner novel that approves the worst Hollywood fantasies harbored by both its workers and civilians, it is almost too grotesque to inspire derision. Cronenberg’s uncanny sangfroid only brings pathos to the ridiculous.
This poisoned-paradise Hollywood setting stands in for our dysfunctional families, corrupt businesses, and blasted dreams. An actor moonlighting as a chauffeur (Robert Pattinson) says of Scientology, “I was thinking about converting just as a career move.” A neurotic actress (Julianne Moore) anguishes over playing her own abusive movie-star mother in a bio-pic. A self-help guru (John Cusack) extorts money from rich patients while hiding his own secret quirks. His disfigured daughter (Mia Wasikowska) returns from family exile to catalyze these various sins — including a bratty child star who makes hostile Holocaust jokes while boasting that his recent film “grossed $780 million worldwide.”
Everyone here works too hard to be outré (“Mother-daughter incest is so Eighties!”), from attempting murder and suicide to literal toilet humor (that’d be up-for-anything Julianne Moore). Even Cronenberg’s lofty intentions toward Greek myth (a West Coast Oresteia) get cut down by the lack of what was crucial to Greek mythology: a sense of faith. (That’s the one place Cronenberg and Wagner won’t go.)
From concept to execution, these Hollywood blasphemies are sarcastic yet humorless. Snarkiness isn’t sufficient. It is not justified by confirming nihilism. If we suspect these terrible things about Hollywood — and not just from media gossip but from the evidence of vile films like Focus, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Birdman, and Star Trek into Darkness — how can we continue to accept and celebrate or to ignore them? Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts were more honest and terrifying. Maps to the Stars offers bogus condemnation. Snark is its own reward, but a paltry one.
The Hollywood state of mind also ruins ’71, a formulaic behind-enemy-lines escape drama based on the Irish Troubles of 1971 and half-derived from the docudrama fakery of Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday. Filmmakers across the globe get colonized by the industry bowdlerization of historical events into genre junk. In this British production, Jack O’Connell plays a British soldier whose unit is sent to quell protests in the Catholic section of Belfast. He gets separated from his unit and barely makes it back to base — a violent journey encountering opposing forces in the Protestant–Catholic war.
Director Yann Demange has no sense of politics (only the confusion of inter-ethnic bickering). He and screenwriter Gregory Burke fail to acutely depict the inequities of social power (John Boorman’s Queen & Country conveys army life more credibly and with more feeling), and Demange is unexceptional at staging or editing violence. That means he misses the mythological fascination of religious war and ethnic psychology — the genius of John Ford’s The Informer (1935) and Jules Dassin’s 1968 African-American remake, Uptight. For these reasons, ’71 lacks contemporary relevance; it can be ignored as historical shallowness or praised as genre trash.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.