Genre: Romantic Con-edy
Premise: A con man teams up with a con woman, but when he falls for her, he must decide which is more important, her or the con.
About: This is the directing team behind “Crazy Stupid Love.” They used to be purely writers but look to now be focusing on their directing careers. “Focus” is their latest writing/directing project. Word on the street is that Ryan Gossling and Emma Stone will star.
Writers: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Details: 130 pages – First Draft (3-16-2012)
I don’t usually review first drafts anymore. But a lot of people have written to tell me that this script is really good, so I’m going to make an exception.
As for this writing/directing team, I’m not sure what to make of them yet. I think they wrote and directed “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” which, while not something I’d ever want to see, was at least different. And recently, they took on directing duties for one of my favorite scripts, “Crazy, Stupid Love,” and played it a little too mainstream in my opinion. Something was lost in that translation. The story didn’t move as fast as it did in the script.
Still, comedies are tricky to direct and when you have another element to latch onto, like the con, it makes things a lot easier, since the entire movie doesn’t need to rest on laughs.
33 year-old Nicky Spurgeon comes from a long line of con men. His dad was a con man. His grandfather was a con man. In fact, his grandfather and father used to con each other! And that’s made Nicky about as untrustworthy of others as one can get. Gotta love those troubled backstories. They make your characters so damn interesting.
Anyway, Nicky’s hanging out in a bar one day where he meets a hot girl who takes him back to her room. Just before they’re about to do the Dew, the woman’s husband barges in with a gun, threatening to kill Nicky. But for some reason, Nicky’s not phased. He shrugs his shoulders and tells the hubby to fire away.
The couple is shocked when Nicky then reveals he’s been onto their con for an hour now. Pissed but intrigued, the girl, Jess, follows him out and begs him to teach her what he knows. But since Nicky doesn’t let anybody in – doesn’t trust a soul – he tells her to get lost.
Jess is one persistent little cookie, though, and eventually convinces him to take her on. He quickly shows her all his tricks, then brings her onto his big con, which will take place at the Super Bowl. After a few twists and turns, he nails the rather confusing Super Bowl con with Jess’ help.
But whereas Jess thinks they’re now a team (and possibly more), Nicky’s always thought of her as a means to an end. Now that the con is over, so is she. Just like that, he disappears, and Jess is devastated.
But three years later, she and Nicky cross paths again before a huge car race. Turns out Nicky is pulling a big con there, and Jess happens to be with one of the drivers, having left the con world behind. Nicky finds himself drawn to Jess once again, but this time she’s not having it, stonewalling him at every turn. Eventually she relents though, and Nicky is posed, once again, with that question: Does he give himself to this woman, or is it still all about the con?
I have a question about con man movies. Why is it that our con man always randomly gets hit up by another con man (in this case, Jess)? I mean, what are the chances? It’s not like every third person in the world is a con man, right? So the odds are pretty astronomical that someone would try to con a conner. Yet it ALWAYS happens. I don’t know. That’s just never made sense to me.
Anyway, my big thing with Con scripts is that they have to be CLEVER. Every scene, every character, every con, every double cross – has to be cleverly executed. If we can see it from a mile away? If at the end of the con, we don’t experience that internal, “Oooooohhhh?” then you’re not doing your job.
To me, that “ooooohhh” never happened in Focus. I wouldn’t say any of the cons here were bad. But none of them blew me away either. The best con is one in which we’re actually unaware a con is going on – so I don’t know if it counts.
Luckily, it’s a GREAT scene that almost single-handedly saves the draft. Nicky, who has a major gambling problem, starts to lose control while betting against a very rich Asian man at the Super Bowl. They bet on miniscule things like who’ll make the next first down or whether the quarterback will hand off or throw. Nicky keeps losing, but each time, betting double or nothing, until a 100 dollar bet turns into a million dollar bet. It’s one of the more intense scenes I’ve read in awhile and has you gripping your seat, desperate to see how it will end.
Unfortunately, after that sequence, we experience an awkward three-year time jump and are introduced to an unnatural storyline involving Nicky trying to con a bunch of race car drivers. The first draft-ness definitely affected this section (the writers feel like they’re still exploring the idea) but even considering its rawness, it doesn’t feel right. I mean, race cars haven’t even been mentioned in the script before this.
I also hate large time jumps late in scripts because they imply nothing in the story is immediate. If we can jump forward 3 years and nothing is affected, then the story probably isn’t focused enough (no pun intended). I’m not saying it can’t or hasn’t been done before, of course. Just that it’s difficult.
Focus has potential. Nicky is an interesting character. And the love story with Jess is pretty solid (and will only get better with more drafts). But I’m not sure either of the script’s halves currently work. The Super Bowl half is plagued by us not knowing what Nicky’s plan is. And the Race Car half just feels out of place. Will be interesting to see what further drafts give us.
FIRST DRAFT RATING:
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You want your characters to be fucked up in some way. Somewhere in that brain of theirs, wires need to be crossed. The more wires that are crossed, the more interesting the character tends to be. Here, Nicky comes from a family where his father played his own father in a con, accidentally killing him in the process. How can you trust anyone when you grew up in a family that couldn’t even trust each other? This lack of trust is what makes Nicky’s relationship with Jess so interesting. He doesn’t know whether to give in to her or play her. That script-long tug-of-war is the emotional meat of this piece and while it’s bogged down by too much first-draftness, I see it working well once the story’s been slimmed down.