Movie Review: “Focus”

Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney
Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Movies about con artists are almost as difficult to pull off as an actual con. They need to be clever enough to outsmart and entertain the audience without being overly complex or resorting to narrative cheats. “Focus” is definitely entertaining at times, a flashy crime drama highlighted by a pair of movie star performances from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but it also commits the aforementioned offenses in order to get to its twist ending… by way of several other twists, naturally. That’s not its biggest problem, however, because most con films break those rules at some point. Instead, it’s the fact that “Focus” is basically two movies stitched together by the same connective tissue, and only one of the halves is any good.

The film begins with a gorgeous woman named Jess (Robbie) picking up the charismatic Nicky (Smith) at a hotel bar, eventually taking their soiree upstairs to her room where her angry boyfriend kicks down the door and threatens to shoot Nicky unless he hands over his wallet. It’s a classic con, and one that Nicky knows all too well as a seasoned grifter himself. But Jess shows promise, so Nicky invites her to join his large-scale operation, hitting big events like the Super Bowl that are packed with crowds of easy marks (read: drunks and cheating husbands) for them to rob, swindle and shake down on the streets. After Jess gets burned by Nicky at the end of the job, the two go their separate ways until they cross paths again three years later when Nicky is hired by the wealthy owner (Rodrigo Santoro) of a Formula One racing team to help ruin a fellow competitor using his powers of persuasion. Everything is going according to plan when Nicky discovers that Jess is dating his new employer, and though he wants to make amends after the way he left things, Jess is unable to trust him, convinced that Nicky must to be working some kind of angle. The real question is whether Jess is too.

Smith may no longer be the box office king he once was, but he still has the screen presence to carry a movie, and he turns in a solid performance as the too-smooth con artist who develops a weakness for Robbie’s beautiful criminal-in-training. You’ll have a hard time not falling in love with Robbie as well, because there’s something magnetic about the actress that demands your attention whenever she’s on screen. She’s the complete package (beauty, smarts and charm), proving that her breakout role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately, the two actors don’t have strong enough chemistry to convincingly sell the romantic relationship at the center of the story, though they’re still fun to watch in a mentor-student sort of way, especially during the early scenes when Smith’s character is showing her the tricks of the trade.

In fact, while the first half of “Focus” is a fun and fizzy con movie that’s capped off by a terrifically tense sequence featuring BD Wong as a high-stakes gambler who will bet on anything, the second half isn’t nearly as engaging. The script’s playful tone remains intact throughout – including a hilarious scene between Smith and Santoro’s pit bull bodyguard (Gerald McRaney) about the latter’s disgust for the younger generation – but it never quite clicks the same way, bogged down by scene after scene of exposition that’s all setup for the big payoff; a rather predictable a-ha moment that is telegraphed not only by the film’s title, but during Nicky’s first teaching moment with Jess.

It doesn’t help that co-writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa dangle the various plot twists in front of the audience like carrots, so you know they’re going to happen, just not exactly when. That differs greatly from the first hour, which manages to retain an element of surprise by lowering the audience’s guard with some very smart writing. For a movie titled “Focus,” however, it doesn’t take its own advice often enough, particularly in regards to the unbalanced structure of the story. Although it’s refreshing to see a major studio take a gamble on a modestly budgeted film targeted towards adults (even if it stars one of the most bankable actors in the world), when that movie is as passively mediocre as “Focus,” you can understand why other studios have been afraid to pull the trigger.