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Review: Why Focus Fails and Wild Canaries Soars

Chemistry is key in old-fashioned films.

focus-movie-trailer-starring-wilI feel we are in the midst of a chemistry problem in Hollywood right now. I found myself almost laughing at the romantic scenes in Black Hat, despite starring a notoriously charismatic leading man in Chris Hemsworth. The stars of 50 Shades of Grey gave audiences the impression that they hated each other more than lusted after each other, making the already unsettling scenes in the red room even more upsetting to watch. And Jupiter Ascending‘s “romance” between Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum were laughable. Hollywood can’t seem to the get the formula right, even when hiring the most popular and attractive of stars; and unfortunately, this week we had yet another example of a film failing the chemistry set and derailing their own movie.

The Will Smith/Margot Robbie film Focus had a premise I was interested in. I love a good con movie, and we have plenty examples of romantic-comedy con films that work: Trouble in Paradise; The Lady Eve; To Catch a Thief; A Fish Called Wanda; The Brothers Bloom; these are all favorite re-watches because of the masterful way they can plan a con-game on screen while distracting you with the “fun” of the romance. Focus had that potential and was clearly created with the intention of capturing the lush, cosmopolitan Golden Age of film, when movies offered fantasy in clothing, sets, and locations (before Bond became the go-to travelogue film). And Focus certainly offers that travelogue quality, and everyone and everything looks great.

But while it can be fun to watch the screen, the characters are never as vibrant or fun as their surroundings. Smith plays Nicky, a master criminal apparently good at every single kind of con, big or small, who is only bad at relationships (really makes for an interesting, nuanced character, right?). He takes a woman of unknown age and means (Robbie) under his wing because… well, I have no idea. We’re supposed to think she’s a natural thief, but the scene didn’t play right. She apparently loves pick-pocketing, primarily because the director gets to show her putting her hand on different men. Smith and Robbie play the con all over the Super Bowl in the first part in one of the most ridiculous examples of organized crimes I’ve ever seen, one that feels more like an excuse to show a set and technology than anything else. And then they head to Bel Air, she with a race car owner (Rodrigo Santoro), and he is called in to work for him on a con job.

As in all these movies, the con job should be building underneath the main action and the romance, so as to catch the distracted audience off-guard. It’s a cinematic slight-of-hand trick that the audience buys into from the beginning. If the movie does its job right, the audience should be delighted by the con, not annoyed. Unfortunately, Smith and Robbie don’t have nearly enough chemistry as an on-screen couple to distract me; I was looking, and I was annoyed by the tricks. Their “banter” has no rhythm and their sex scenes are orchestrated to showcase their physical beauty rather than to express the characters’ passion. It doesn’t help that the characters are, by their nature, insincere con-artists – but that’s no excuse, since we have plenty of examples of films with insincere characters that have enough subtext and history to hold the audience’s interest and win them over.

Another problem is the question of age. Will Smith is an actor who has been around for a while. No matter how young you want me to think he is, when you put him in the “teacher” role with a younger actress, the film suggests a certain kind of relationship which is unsettling. Robbie, although only 24, seems far too mature to be so willing to play the protégé role, and her attempt to play the part as youthful feels more like her playing dumb. The film makes an attempt to suggest that Robbie is wise because of her ability to seduce men; but really, the film suggests that this is her only asset, while Smith is smart, charming, and sexy enough to do everything but resist her. And more than once, Robbie is the last to know what is going on, because the man we’re supposed to be charmed by is using the woman we’re told he loves. It puts her in a subserviant role to him, so the film’s relationship is hard to root for. Where is the fun in that? Here is how disinterested I was in the central relationship: two days after seeing this movie, I had to remind myself if they even ended up together.

wild canaries

Fortunately, while Focus disappointed in terms of delivering that old-fashioned rom-com-con film, we have a smaller but ultimately far more satisfying comedy called Wild Canaries, a murder-mystery-screwball-romance. Written and directed by actor Lawrence Michael Levine, his character Noah is a tall, gangly, sad-sack who talks about hitting middle-age four years before hitting forty and already has the aches and pains. At the start of the film, he feels even older compared to his younger fiancée Bari (Sophia Takal, Levin’s wife) who talks of their life together being full of possibilities and adventures. She wants to start a business with her best friend Jean (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development), their gay roommate of whom Noah is jealous, and thinks nothing of taking half a million from an investor. Meanwhile, Noah is almost broke because of his struggling business with his ex, Eleanor (Annie Parisse). One day, Bari finds the body of her neighbor, an old lady with a weird son (Kevin Corrigan) and assumes it was murder. Noah thinks she’s getting carried away and causing problems, until he gets wrapped up in the investigation Bari and Jean have been doing on their own.

The movie is surprisingly thoughtful about how to address age gaps in relationships, when couples feel they are from different generations. Talk of finances, jobs, and commitment are when their age difference shows, and tempers flare. But the movie is also incredibly funny (such as when Takal and Levin argue about their financial situation in the middle of the night); and by framing their story around a murder mystery, they are able to heighten everything on screen to the point of seeming ridiculous. It would be too much to call Levin and Takal a modern day Nick and Nora Charles, but they have clearly watched plenty of movies like The Thin Man (not to mention My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby).

Screwball is a lost comedy art form replaced by romantic comedies (often lazy ones), because the comedy of marriage is a high wire act. When done poorly, the satire can become grating and audiences are simply indifferent to the couple ending up together. But when done well, screwball can be a far more honest take on romance, because it shows how hard relationships can be, but also that the quality which drives you nuts about someone is exactly what makes you love them. It requires chemistry in order to work. Fortunately Levine and Takal don’t just have plenty of chemistry, but so do Shawkat and Parisse in their all too brief scenes together, both couples being a pleasure to watch and to spend time with.

Being a murder mystery, I can only say that Kevin Corrigan is suitably “off” as the son of the dead old woman Takal finds, and the often loveable Jason Ritter is unlike you’ve ever seen him before as their filthy, pothead artist landlord. It also happens to have a great use of music and opening titles, and art form we don’t get to see nearly enough. If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned romantic comedy with couples you’ll want to spend time with, you’d be better off hitting the VOD and renting Wild Canaries than heading to the theaters.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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