Focus tells a story that could only transpire in the movies. This is a tale of con artists but it’s told with the same cool detachment that tonally defined other similar adult themed capers like Out of Sight and The Thomas Crown Affair. It also share a romanticized view of criminals that was so prevalent in those titles too. Sure, the main characters are thieves but they are portrayed as cool — too cool, in fact, for this low-key film to develop much heat.
Will Smith is Nicky Spurgeon, a life-long confidence man. One night, while sitting alone at a hotel restaurant, Nicky is approached by a stunning blonde woman, Jess (Margot Robbie). She asks for his help in avoiding a creep at the bar, the damsel in distress routine works and before long Nicky and Jess are getting hot and heavy in her room. In the midst of the tryst, Jess’ husband bursts through the door totting a handgun. The enraged husband shoves the weapon in Nicky’s face, and starts to make ridiculous demands. Unfazed, Nicky doesn’t comply with any of the deceived spouse’s wishes. This confuses the husband and he breaks character, which wasn’t fooling the unflappable Nick to begin with. Jess asks Nicky, why he let her bring him into the trap? He replies, that it was a matter of professional curiosity.
The curiosity professionally turns into a passionate love-affair, though as an audience member we can never be sure if they are conning each other, that ends in heartbreak following a big-score at the Super Bowl. The sequence in the Super dome’s luxurious suite is masterfully handled in every department and is the best scene in the entire film. B.D. Wong has a fantastic supporting turn as a high-stakes gambler who senses a weakness in Nicky. The conviction of the actors, the structure of the writing and the fluid editing make this ten minute stretch of film absolutely riveting. Unfortunately, this is the high-point and the movie never again matches itself in terms of excitement and involvement.
At about the midway mark, the film jumps three-years forward and changes locations from New Orleans to Buenos Aries. Nicky is working a con for the ultra wealthy owner (Rodrigo Santoro) of an open-wheel race team. Things are going to plan, until Jess appears at a party being thrown by the millionaire. The plot grows complicated with the revelation that Nicky came to steal her away from the arms of his mark and employer.
The screenplay feels like two undercooked ideas that were merged into one story. The fact that the film plays can in no small part be credited to the rich dialogue from writer/director Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and from the enormous charisma and chemistry of stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Smith can play cool and intelligent with the best of them and Robbie is one of the true screen beauties of the modern era, that she can hold her own with Smith in the dramatic scenes is even more impressive. I’m giving Focus a modest recommendation due to the cast and some clever writing but the glimpse of a movie we see in that sequence during the Super Bowl is how the entire film should have played.
Director: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Stars: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro