“Yes, it’s a fun caper movie. But please stop making films like this,” begged Sophie Gilbert in her review of Focus in The Atlantic. Why, you may wonder, would a critic plead for Hollywood — in a cinematic era so overstuffed with explosive artifice that hardly anything is truly fun — to put a moratorium on whatever fun is still out there? Because Focus, it turns out, is not just a depthlessly enjoyable rollick; as it attempts to mindfuck you to awestruck unconsciousness, it assumes your fucked mind will euphorically dismiss what turns out to be a pretty flagrant display regressive gender politics. The film flounders because, once you realize the characters are old-fashioned archetypes with pasts tacked on in a slapdash attempt at humanization, you stop wanting to follow Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie) down their sexy, glitzy, and yes, uncritically male-hegemonic rabbit hole — regardless of whatever heavy-handedly aphrodisiac location (New Orleans, Buenos Aires) the film decides to send them to.
That’s not to say that the imperceptible line between care and deceit among con artists duos (and they seem to always come in duos) doesn’t make for great cinema. Quite the contrary; if Focus’ own writing/directing duo (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) get anything right, it’s in making a film that’s inherently reminiscent of better works in the genre, works that portray intriguingly fluctuating — or at least critically static — power dynamics. So perhaps we should co-opt the film’s dictatorial title and shift our focus to superiorly conceived dynamics among onscreen con duos.
I Love You Phillip Morris (dir. Glenn Ficarra & John Requa)
It’s only fair to start this off with another con film by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa: I Love You Phillip Morris far outdoes Focus in the complexity of the central crooks’ physical, emotional and sometimes professional relationship. In Focus, inanely crass humor (the film’s comic relief character gets his big moment with a series of completely stupid lesbian jokes) falls flat because it’s not being used to counterbalance anything weightier. In I Love You Phillip Morris, however, Jim Carrey’s flair for gross absurdity comes as a foil to the film’s dealings with societal ostracism (its crooks are a gay couple in the ’80s and ’90s), the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and the eventual, harrowing notion of spending the rest of one’s entire life in prison.
Nine Queens (dir. Fabián Bielinsky)
While Focus sees two con artists developing an alliance through their sexual attraction and slowly wanting to screw each other over less and less (giving in, rather, to regular old screwing), it somehow never quite quashes the dichotomized power dynamic it establishes at the beginning. The 2000 Argentine caper film Nine Queens, however, opens a similarly consistent line of “Are they in cahoots or conning each other?” questions throughout the viewing experience, but ultimately undermines dull master/neophyte power dynamics in a last-minute twist.
Abuse of Weakness (dir. Catherine Breillat)
Abuse of Weakness isn’t your typical con story: unlike most conning dyads, the film’s two central characters are not two experienced crooks superficially in cahoots, potentially acting against one another. It’s far stranger: the film tells the autobiographical story of Breillat’s experience having suffered a partially debilitating stroke and having subsequently entered a cinematic partnership with the formerly incarcerated, notorious con artist Christophe Rocancourt. The director hired him to star in one of her films and write a screenplay; unsurprisingly, he swindled her out of most of her savings. In the film, Isabelle Huppert — an actor who exudes herculean strength in her frequent portrayals of total brokenness — plays the fictionalized version of Breillat. As she signs check after check away to the known conman, we wonder if he’s merely abusing her weakness, or if there was some part of the character who, in finding herself physically weakened, wanted to play the director in her own self-conceived decline. Breillat would never make a film so simple as to apply such a declarative title to a truly “weak” character. “In her manipulative, roundabout way, Maud is as much the abuser as Vilko is in this chilly, dark portrait of two control freaks locking horns,” the New York Times said of this film about a con artist assuming the subordinate role of “actor” and a director assuming the subordinate role of victim.
House of Games (dir. David Mamet)
David Mamet’s House of Games depicts one of the most venomous relationships between a veteran con artist and his trainee. As in Focus, the veteran is a man in a man’s world, and the neophyte — a psychiatrist by day, who just so happens to be bored and exhilarated by the idea of the con — is a woman, Margaret, who sleeps with and falls in love with her con-splainer. But whereas Focus never truly subverts the backwardly parallel dynamics of male dominance over women and a coach’s dominance over their trainee, House of Games’ Margaret, who gets conned by her lover on more than one occasion, isn’t ultimately so willing to accept it.
Paper Moon (dir. Peter Bogdanovich)
Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon accomplishes the difficult feat of being a tremendously sweet film about a man teaching a just-orphaned child how to be a criminal.
Colour Me Kubrick (dir. Brian W. Cook)
This isn’t necessarily a well received or remembered film, but the conning dynamic established between Stanley Kubrick “impersonator” Alan Conway and the real Stanley Kubrick is an abnormally fascinating one, given that Kubrick had both no part and every part in it. The film is loosely based on the true story of a man who made his illegal living pretending to be the famous director, despite hardly knowing anything about Kubrick. As Conway, John Malkovich is chameleonic in his Kubrick imitations. He’s able to convince people, while looking nothing like the director, and while switching up exaggerated accents and provenances (due to his ignorance about the director’s past or present), that he is a) the director of 2001 and that b) they should give him money, beverages, sexual favors, etc.
The Heartbreakers (dir. David Mirkin)
Let me start by saying this entire post may have been my sick con to bring the unknowingly sinister rom-com The Heartbreakers back into pop-cultural discussion (“bring back” might also be a bit too generous). But I assure you its presence on this list is not, itself, a con. Of course, a mother-daughter con artist team whose surname is Connor doesn’t exactly sound rife with critical subtlety, and it’s not! But Sigourney Weaver’s criminal stage mother dynamic with Jennifer Love Hewitt is definitely strange, given that the nature of their crimes has to do with such intimate matters as love and (almost) sex. Weaver’s character marries men then, exploiting her daughter’s cleavage and perky buttocks, has her dress up in outfits spotlighting these parts to seduce her husbands. Despite this merely being a tonally bizarre romantic comedy, the whole thing abounds with psychosexual discomfort. When Weaver drugs her daughter’s fiance to make it look like she’s seduced him so she’ll break up with him and stay with her forever, it’s clear that despite the fact that it wants to be, this is no lighthearted romantic comedy. The cons also happen to be far more inventive — in that they can afford to be far less believable — than those in most caper films: where else would the crux of a con involve Sigourney Weaver singing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” in amusingly essentialist Russian cultural drag?
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise bears many parallels to Focus ; the film was made in 1932 and Focus was made in 2015, and yet, despite nearly a century between them, the gender dynamics are, at first glance, similar (so much so that the recurring motif of a necklace that beguiles Jess in Focus seems like a shout-out to a similar necklace in Trouble in Paradise). But it turns out that the 1932 film actually trumps the 2015 film in its depiction of gendered power dynamics among con partners. By adding a third party to the sexualized con scenario — the perfume manufacturer Madame Mariette Colet, and by having Herbert Marshall’s character fall for her despite trying to con her (and despite being in cahoots with and also in love with his partner, Miriam Hopkins’ character, Lily) — the film deftly juggles each member of the triad’s powers, spiraling into wonderful unpredictability.
The Hustler (dir. Robert Rossen)
In The Hustler, big time gambler Bert (George C. Scott) manages pool hustler Eddie (Paul Newman). He manipulates and instigates Eddie, sexually engaging with his girlfriend Sarah who he knows is being driven crazy by the dangerous and volatile lifestyle Eddie is leading. The lifestyle he champions for Eddie ultimately leads Sarah to suicide — after she writes that what they do is “perverted, twisted and crippled” in lipstick on the bathroom mirror.
American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)
American Hustle transcends what you can now see is the somewhat tired trend of con-partners training, conning and sleeping with one another. Though Amy Adams’ and Christian Bale’s characters are romantically linked, and though their loving honesty may be called into question by a certain oscillating British accent put on by Adams’ character, the real threat to their relationship is Bale’s character’s unwillingness to divorce his wife and mother of his child, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Rather than relegating their relationship to the exotic and labyrinthine whims of scams, the film refreshingly grounds it in highly domestic, even banal, problems whose stakes are interestingly just as high as the dangerous cons in which they’re involved.