Focus, the new film starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, is a giddy love letter to a lost art: not the art of the con man (though it is that, too), but the art of the con-man movie. Con-artist movies are dying off, or at least finding it nearly impossible — like some grizzled, old-school grifter set in his ways — to adapt to the modern world, a place where you’re less likely to get your wallet pinched than to have your PayPal hacked. In Focus, Smith plays just such a grizzled old-school grifter, Nicky Spurgeon, while Robbie plays Jess, a fledgling hustler looking to Nicky for tips (and maybe more — dun dun dun!). As Nicky inducts her into his underworld of scoundrels, cutpurses and flimflam artists, the film nods dutifully to modern cyberscams — ATM skimmers, credit-card fraud, identity theft — but who are we kidding here? What we really want to see from Nicky are the lifts, bumps, slips, drops, flimps, fine-wirers, and tosses. In one scene, he shows Jess the various ways a person can be distracted and then relieved of her valuables — ergo focus — and it starts to look like he’s giving her a tango lesson. This classic sleight-of-hand trickery retains an aura of sexy romance that just doesn’t transfer to online swindlers tapping away at keyboards. There’s a reason the slang phrase cutpurse has a swashbuckling flare, but no one ever calls someone a cardswipe.
Which points to one of the great dilemmas of modern movies and TV: Just how do you make anything computer-related look remotely interesting? You can go the Blackhat route — a few CGI POV shots that take us swooping over circuit boards — or the Halt and Catch Fire route, which boils down to distracting us with funny ’80s hair. But either way, you ultimately end up with TV shows and movies about people … looking … at screens. (Or, if you want to expand out to include the audience, people looking at screens looking at people looking at screens.) Ironically, the more sophisticated we, the audience, get about technology, the harder it is for movies to cheat by using far-fetched visual conventions to goose the action. The talking, tic-tac-toe-playing computer in WarGames and the fantastically silly graphically rendered “hacking” in Weird Science both look totally ludicrous to modern eyes, but at least our modern eyes have something to look at. If you try to think of a really satisfying hacker film, the first one that comes to mind is probably Sneakers, and that came out 23 years ago, in 1992.
It’s a shame that no one’s yet cracked the problem of making modern swindles come alive onscreen, seeing as the con-man film is one of American cinema’s great subgenres — from The Sting to The Grifters to The Spanish Prisoner to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. These cinematic shakedowns work so well in part because movies themselves are a kind of giant con. We happily believe that the room’s walls go all the way to the top to a ceiling rather than end midway on a soundstage. We accept that a street full of wooden façades is actually an entire town. We assume two actors are talking to each other just because the camera angles trick our eyes into concocting a conversation. We’re happily duped into believing the world continues on past the edges of the finite frame. The filmmaker is the grifter, and we’re the willing marks.
Focus — which hasn’t been helped by a generic title and posters that look like an ad campaign for Foster Grants — gets this relationship right, and it cunningly defeats the dilemma of dramatizing modern swindles by simply ignoring them. Focus is a modern con-man movie that’s not at all about modern cons. Instead, we get a long, bravura sequence involving pickpocket scams at a crowded New Orleans street festival, which is a ton of fun to watch, even as we recall that pickpocketing of this sort has essentially disappeared in the U.S. Focus feels like both an homage to, and an eulogy for, the classic con-man film. Apollo Robbins, the sleight-of-hand artist who consulted on the film, admits that there’s a big difference between the grifters of old and the hackers of today. As for pickpockets, “the younger ones are in their 50s,” he says, and while the typical grifter rose up from a hardscrabble background — thus, the Robin Hood aura — hackers are often a different breed: intelligent, often antisocial, and usually working in isolation. It’s hard to imagine a modern-day update of The Sting entitled The Hack; if nothing else, the costuming would be terrible. Still, as Robbins points out, the grift isn’t quite dead yet: Just two years ago, the Louvre was shut down because of a plague of pickpockets. Like Focus, that incident reminds us that some old art forms aren’t entirely extinct. And, come to think of it, that Louvre story — just like Focus — has the makings of a pretty good movie.