Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus is a bauble—a slick and sexy crime drama that has all the ingredients of a conman movie except one: smarts. It’s a type of movie whose filmmakers spend more time trying to make its characters look cool and sound clever than actually taking the time to construct something truly clever. With its attractive leads, exotic locales, stylish outfits, sleek cinematography and ear for punchy dialogue, it certainly has the veneer of a classic conman movie (think To Catch a Thief, Ocean’s 11). But despite its brisk pace and running time, Focus never builds to anything. Save for the sparkling chemistry between stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie, and a nail-biting sequence set in a luxury suite during the Super Bowl, nothing else in Focus sticks or even merits recommendation.
Will Smith, in one of the most complacent performances of his career, plays Nicky, a smooth conman who believes that the trick behind conning a person is a game of focus. Nicky has built an extremely successful business operation using this principal as a code. We learn that he’s one of the best grifters in the business—a legend who knows the insides of every pocket and wallet of the pickpocketing racket; a man whose taste in the finer things in life, like his $3,000 suits and shades, are nearly as impressive as his gift of the gab.
When we first meet Nicky, he’s conning his way into a swanky restaurant in New York City. It’s there where he becomes the mark of Jess (Margot Robbie), a young thief with dreams of hitting the big time. Nicky is quick to call her out on her scam but since she looks like Margot Robbie, he decides to take her under his wing. Soon, they’re jetting off to New Orleans alongside his loyal band of scam artists—many who demean her with misogynistic jokes—to rob regular hard-working Americans of their money. What follows is a razzle-dazzle montage of Jess, Nicky and pals ripping off people using misdirection, flirtation and their quick fingers.
But everything Jess knows about Nicky comes into question during a long and tightly-constructed set-piece set in a luxury suite during the Super Bowl in which she’s made privy to his weaknesses. What ensues is the film’s most powerful and pivotal scene. To say more would be ruining things but let’s say things don’t go well for one of them.
The problem with the Super Bowl sequence is that by setting such a high bar, Ficarra and Requa knot themselves into a situation knowing that audiences will undoubtedly expect something smarter the next time around. The trick of a good con movie is staying one step of the audience at every turn. Unfortunately, everything that follows this scene—most of it involving an Argentinean Formula 1 owner named Garrida (Rodrigo Santoro) and a plot to steal an engineering formula, feels strained in comparison. By the time Ficarra and Requa reveal their final hand—a laughably preposterous copout—most of the audience I was watching the film with, was ready to check out. And that’s disappointing considering how much I enjoyed Ficarra and Requa’s previous two features Crazy, Stupid Love and I Love You Philip Morris.
Still, what makes Focus pass off as entertainment is the sterling chemistry between Robbie and Smith. Whenever they’re on screen together, which is a lot, the film zips by. This is Smith’s first leading role in three years and although the script doesn’t demand much from him, other than to ooze charisma, it’s nice to see him in something as frothy as this again. Robbie who was such a standout in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, makes a stronger impression. Although the filmmakers’ resolution in depicting Jess as a dimwit who is lusted after and ridiculed by all the male characters in the film is extremely problematic, Robbie elevates the character with so much depth and soul that I can’t help but applaud her.
Running time: 104 minutes
Companies: Warner Bros.
Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence