Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Produced by Denise DiNovi. Photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet. Edited by Jan Kovac. Music by Nick Urata. Production designed by Beth Mickle. Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong.
The movies love stories about con artists. And why not? Since the very beginning, the motion picture has essentially been a 24-frame-per-second magic trick, and what is grifting if not a type of magic where the prize ends up in your pocket and not the true owner’s? We are told several times in Focus that con artistry is all about distraction, manipulation and misdirection, and so are movies: why invent editing if there weren’t things we were meant to see and things we weren’t? Alas, Focus is a trick that doesn’t quite work like it should. It’s got suavity and charm, but it isn’t surefooted, and we never forget it’s just an exercise.
The movie is great to look at: it’s slickly photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet, globetrots to some picturesque locations, and it stars two of the most good-looking people in the world: Will Smith and Margot Robbie. He’s a professional con man named Nicky, she’s a pickpocket and amateur grifter named Jess looking to graduate to bigger and better. They meet one snowy night in New York; after she incorrectly sizes him up as a mark, she asks him to be her mentor, following him to New Orleans on Super Bowl weekend and ingratiating herself into his crew. She has real skills and is good at learning on the job, and although both she and Nicky are aware of the pitfalls of workplace romances in the world of scammers, some things are hard to resist.
To say that Nikki is a good con man is a gross understatement. He’s smart, cool, collected and perceptive, and he runs his operations with tight control. Some of his schemes are ingenious in their simplicity. Others have such intricate, hidden infrastructures that they reach preposterousness and then lap it. This stuff—as our heroes bathe in luxury and vie for more of it – is exceptionally fun to watch, even when it borders on ridiculous. Which it does often, like during a very tense (and very long) betting duel between Nicky and an impetuous Japanese businessman (B.D. Wong). Petrified of his own feelings for Jess, Nicky breaks ties with her, and then we cut forward three years to Buenos Aires, where a down-and-out Nicky finds himself in the uncomfortable employ of a dangerous billionaire racecar owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Nicky is on his game as he plots with Garriga to gift the millionaire’s competitors with stolen (and faulty) equipment, until one night he meets Jess again…this time in the arms of Garriga…and I think that’s quite enough of the plot, don’t you? Trust me, you do.
What Smith and Robbie generate in Focus is that rarest of movie elements: real chemistry. One of the most entertaining things a movie can do is show us two characters falling in love and make us believe it. Smith as Nicky fondly recalls the wit and ease of a Cary Grant, but joined to the aggressive likability that Smith has made his brand. Robbie, an Australian who impressed as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jersey-flavored sugar-and-spice wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, makes a solid case for movie stardom. They’re great together. It’s no surprise that the movie’s second half keeps contriving ways to pair them up, even after she warns that Garriga’s the violent-and-jealous type. Well, that’s what she says anyway.
That’s the key disappointment about Focus: its stakes never feel real. The story that co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have concocted is loaded with twists, but by anticipating them, the movie keeps a touch so light that even from minute to minute we don’t really believe what it’s doing — it’s got too many extraneous bits that call attention to themselves. Like the great con artist movies, Focus loves to pull the rug out from under us, but it doesn’t quite have a knack for getting us to step on the rug in the first place. The performances and story seem out of sync when they should click together: Smith and Robbie’s romance is cute but doesn’t really seem to inhabit the same world as the danger personified by Santoro’s overacted villain. Like an imperfect flim flam, Focus grabs our attention, but out of the corner of our eye we can see all too clearly what it’s really doing.