Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a seasoned grifter from a long line of con men. His father and grandfather were flim flam artists and now he is passing along the tricks of the trade to Jess (Margot Robbie) a beautiful newcomer with a light touch—perfect for picking pockets—who just might get Nicky to break his golden rule of never getting emotionally involved with anyone.
When Spurgeon first spots Jess she is working a low level scam in a hotel bar. He teaches her how to use misdirection to pick pockets. “You get their focus,” he says, “and then you can take whatever you like.” Using a mixture of his methods and chutzpah they hit the rubes at the Superbowl in New Orleans, raking in over a million dollars in one week.
A nervy game of one-upmanship nets another big score, and Jess, thinking she is part of the team—both professionally and romantically—imagines a life of crime with Nicky until he unceremoniously dumps her, gifting her with $80,000 and a free ride to the airport.
Three years later Nicky is in Buenos Aires working a big job for billionaire Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). To his surprise Jess is also there, but is she working an angle or has she gone straight?
One part Scorsese, one part Soderbergh, with a healthy dose of “The Sting” thrown in, “Focus” is a stylish crime drama more about the characters than the crime. Nicky’s maxims—“Die with the lie.”—set the scene, but the story is more about a commitment-phobe who loses himself over a woman. It works because of the chemistry between Smith and Robbie. They have great repartee, trade snappy dialogue and despite a gaping age difference, make a credible couple.
Smith hasn’t been this effortlessly charming in years and Robbie blends streetwise—“It’s a minor miracle I’m not a hooker right now,” she says.—with easy charm. The pair are a winning combo, reminiscent of the spark-plug chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in “Out of Sight.”
“Focus” could use a bit more focus in the storytelling—a late movie plot twist doesn’t ring true given the lead up to the big reveal—but it zips along at such a pace and is enough fun that you may not notice.
Critically acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh says all his films “feel commercial” when he’s making them. His latest, The Girlfriend Experience, is now in limited release.
You’d be hard pressed to find a movie fan that hasn’t seen the Steven Soderbergh films Traffic, Erin Brockovich and at least one of the Ocean’s movies.
A little more eclectic, but still popular are The Limey and Out of Sight, two of the director’s box office near-misses. Mainstream films like those, though, comprise only a fraction of the director’s resume.
Since his breakout film Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, Soderbergh has directed 19 films (including The Girlfriend Experience, in theatres now), but only a handful — usually the ones starring George Clooney or Julia Roberts—could be called blockbusters. Many others have, however, languished.
Here’s a couple of the director’s deserving films that didn’t set the box office ablaze.
Soderbergh said that “all attempts at synopsizing (Schizopolis) have ended in failure and hospitalization.”
With health card in hand, here goes: Schizopolis is a surrealistic look at two people who can’t communicate. As the level of emotional detachment increases so does the weird stuff.
There’s an exterminator (David Jansen) who only speaks in non sequiturs and near the end Soderbergh’s character (he’s a triple threat here as actor, writer and director) only speaks in overdubbed Italian, Japanese and French.
Even the director acknowledges that this is an eccentric film, noting that the only people who ever ask him about it are “the ones with the crazy look in their eyes when I go to festivals.”
1993’s King of the Hill is more accessible but still made less than $1.5 million at the box office. Based on a 1972 memoir by A.E. Hotchner, it’s the story of a 12-year-old boy surviving and thriving on his own during the Great Depression.
One IMDB contributor called this “the best American film of the nineties,” while another wrote “Spielberg, eat your heart out, this is a real feel good movie.”
Rent it for its unsentimental storytelling and great performances, particularly from Adrien Brody who plays the main character’s surrogate big brother.
Other interesting Soderbergh movies still waiting to grab an audience are the Spalding Gray monologue film Gray’s Anatomy and the suspense story Kafka, but no matter how odd or how low budget these films are, don’t get the idea Soderbergh doubts their commercial appeal.
“When I’m making them,” he says, “they all feel commercial to me. It’s no joke. If I’m making a movie for a million bucks, I feel like this thing could blow up. It’s happened before.”