There’s a scene early on in the new con-artist caper Focus where Will Smith’s smooth-as-cashmere grifter Nicky teaches Margot Robbie’s wannabe hustler Jess about the art of misdirection. She’s just tried, unsuccessfully, to scam him, not knowing that he’s a scammer himself. And rather than call the cops or simply tell her to beat it, he decides to take pity on her with a tough-love tutorial ticking off every mistake she made. “It’s a game of focus,” he tells her. As Nicky dispenses valuable lessons of the trade, his quicksilver fingers have their own agenda. He boosts her watch, relieves her of her purse, and even surreptitiously places his hand on a part of her body that rarely gets explored on a first date—even one as unusual as this. From that fizzy, pheromone-soaked early moment, it’s clear not only that these two flimflammers will fall in love but also that she will be his undoing. She’ll make him lose his focus.
That most of what follows the opening meet-cute sequence is fairly predictable isn’t a crime, exactly. But it is slightly disappointing. Part of the deal that moviegoers make when they buy tickets to see a movie like The Sting or House of Games is that we know going in that we’re about to be played for suckers. That’s part of the thrill. We want to be swindled. But unlike those other, sharper celluloid long cons, Focus lacks elegance and jeweler precision. Instead of making you dizzy with the kind of smart double crosses that leave you patting for your wallet on the way out of the theater, it just piles on more and more twists, each more implausible than the last. You roll your eyes when you should be gasping for air.
What keeps the film humming along as smoothly as it does is the chemistry and charisma of its leads. It’s been a while since Smith was given a role as charming and loose as Nicky. Maybe as far back as Men in Black II. And here, as he takes in all of the angles sizing up a potential mark, he radiates the same unflusterable Cary Grant cool that once made him the biggest box office draw on the planet. When he opens his mouth, out pour jazzy arias of Soderberghian wise-guy patter. It’s a gas to see that guy again. As Jess, Robbie turns out to be a fast and fleet sparring partner. In her breakout performance playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, she proved that she could be calculating, vulnerable, and easy on the eyes. But the actress manages to pull off something trickier as Jess—you’re never 100 percent sure whether she’s being played or doing the playing, whether she’s the cat or the mouse.
The movie’s essentially split into two halves. The first is Jess’ babe-in-the-woods baptism into Nicky’s ring-a-ding world of vice—a world that seems surprisingly free of real danger. He introduces her to his colorful posse of criminal oddballs—such as the hulking and harmlessly lewd Farhad (Adrian Martinez)—and teaches her how to pick pockets on Bourbon Street during Super Bowl weekend. Jess turns out to be such a quick study, Nicky knows he’s doomed. The second half, which reunites Smith and his merry band of pranksters in Buenos Aires during a Formula One event, is where the film runs out of gas. Nicky has been hired by a race-team owner (Rodrigo Santoro) for a high-tech scheme to sabotage his rivals. But the subsequent score is so overworked and needlessly byzantine that it feels as if writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) weren’t confident enough in their cinematic shell game and stuffed the entire plots of all three Ocean’s movies into the last 40 minutes. Thanks to Smith and Robbie, it’s still a sexy, satisfying ride. But it’s also a con that could’ve used a little less misdirection and a little more focus. B