'Focus': Film Review

Focus Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Focus Still - H 2014

The con is on the audience

Will Smith and Margot Robbie team up in a globetrotting heist flick from the writer-director team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

A romantic caper stocked with con artists, good looks but little sizzle, Focus is no Trouble in Paradise, House of Games or The Grifters. This ultra-slick, fantasy-inducing visit to an international wonder world of wealth and deception plays more like an inventory of thieving and gambling techniques than a captivating diversion, even if it's hard not to be voyeuristically pulled in by some of its ruses. Will Smith and the film's sexy vibe will likely spur moderately good initial box office, although the vague, undescriptive title won't help.

A prominent, specially invented screen credit goes to one Apollo Robbins for “con artist adviser/pickpocket design.” And well deserved it is, as the almost continuous display of Mr. Robbins's tricks of the trade serves as the virtual raison d'etre of this how-to manual of criminal deception (the press notes state that Robbins first gained notoriety by pick-pocketing the Secret Service while entertaining President Jimmy Carter and has picked the pockets of more than 250,000 people). Nifty montages demonstrate the clever use of diversion techniques and the importance of distraction in making anyone susceptible to having their load lightened as bit.

All this comes by way of a tutorial proffered by Nicky (Smith) to novice Jess (Margot Robbie) after they meet on the job, so to speak, in a swank Manhattan restaurant. Shortly thereafter in New Orleans, Jess proves herself an adept student, impressing Nicky with her slick skills in depriving French Quarter celebrants of their booze money. For his part, the old pro heads up a large team of highly trained operatives that manages to separate revelers from more than a million bucks over a long weekend. And there are the after-hours fringe benefits for the on-the-roll old pro and quick learner.

Nicky's dominant character trait is that he firmly believes he can get away with anything, and it's this unassailable confidence that feeds the high point of the third feature from the writer-director team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris; Crazy, Stupid, Love). Flush with cash he's not supposed to bet and with the beauteous Jess by his side in a luxury suite at the Superdome, Nicky begins some friendly wagering with big-bucks Chinese businessman Liyuan (BD Wong, a hoot), who doesn't object when Nicky, on a clear losing streak, keeps doubling the bets until they stretch into the millions. An aghast Jess goes 'round the bend with anxiety over her lover's recklessness, but this is nothing compared to her distress in the aftermath of the high-stakes showdown.

At the tale's mid-way point, the action shifts to three years later in Buenos Aires, where Nicky alights in the world of Formula 1 auto racing to scheme with arrogant team owning rich boy Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) in pulling a scam on the rival McEwen outfit; Nicky will pose as a disgruntled Garriga employee willing to sell a secret fuel additive to the competition. Big surprise, though: pretty boy Garriga's girlfriend is Jess, who insists to Nicky that she's now “out of the game” but then signals that she'd like to run off with him.

Suspecting he's being played, Garriga sends his tough old enforcer Owens (Gerald McRaney) to snoop on the American in what inevitably becomes a contest among experts at playing the long game, of who—Nicky, Jess, Owens, Garriga or perhaps a dark horse out there—will be in a position to play the final card once everyone else's hand is empty.

Unfortunately, since the major characters' salient character traits are insincerity, opaqueness and untruthfulness, it's hard to invest much interest in any of them. The film is all but a feature-length commercial for high living in nothing but the most luxurious hotels, the best restaurants and the most expensive clothes, and yet it's not exactly a goof or cartoon of glamorous characters committing crimes against those who can live with it, a la the Oceans films, nor a sophisticated battle of equals, as in Lubitsch's immortal Trouble in Paradise.

Rather, Focus occupies an uncertain middle ground between a lark and a caper with serious underpinnings. The writers trot out sordid backstory about Nicky's father and grandfather that's supposed to explain his go-his-own-way behavior, but the baggage seems to oppress Smith as well, to keep him from being as funny and fun to be around as before; here, the actor feels older, less spirited. This also diminishes any desire one might have for Jess to end up with Nicky, no matter what the script may intend. Nicky might be the zen master of con artists and believably becomes an awe-inspiring combination teacher/lover for Jess. But a good prospect for long term mate? One would bet against it.

Robbie builds on the strong impression she made in The Wolf of Wall Street a year ago with a vigorous and, it must be said, highly watchable turn as a promising student made good. Adrian Martinez inspires much mirth as Nicky's outsized and good-humored cohort in crime. Also notable is McRaney as a bird of prey ready to pounce on Nicky at any moment; McRaney (financier Raymond Tusk in House of Cards) seems poised to take on any roles Robert Duvall might have played were he in his sixties.

Focus is nothing if not sleek and luxurious; it's a fantasy portrait of the upside of a sort of criminality that's portrayed as relatively benign, that is, without victims of physical harm. The Buenos Aires locations of the second half provide backdrops that are welcome in their relative unfamiliarity in Hollywood films. 

Production: Di Novi Pictures, Zaftig Films
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, Robert Taylor, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Dominic Fumusa
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screenwriters: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Producer: Denise Di Novi
Executive producers: Charlie Gogolak, Stan Wlodkowski, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Xavier Grobet
Production designer: Elizabeth Mickle
Costume designer: Dayna Pink
Editor: Jan Kovac
Music: Nick Urata
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield

R rating, 105 minutes