“Focus,” Hollywood’s latest love affair with grifters, can’t leave two very appealing stars alone. It slathers on plot twist upon plot twist until only the easiest mark will gobble it all up.
Will Smith plays Nicky, a gifted con man who knows his limits.
“We are in the volume business. It’s safer that way,” Nicky says.
So when a beautiful con artist (Margot Robbie) begs him to teach her the finer points of pick pocketing he refuses. Of course Nicky has second thoughts. Robbie’s Jess has talent to spare. And she’s rather easy on the eyes.
Soon, the duo are ripping off tourists and rushing to the bedroom for more intensive, er, training. Is it true love … or just another grift?
“Focus” spins madly from that spare set-up, but with every plot development comes a new layer of artifice. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy Stupid Love”) keep the madness at a fizzy pace at first. Having two enormously appealing stars makes that possible.
Smith could do charming/sly/confident in his REM sleep. The pleasant surprise here is Robbie, who conveys Jess’ ambivalence toward Nicky’s advances. Give her a meaty role and she’ll leap to the A-list. This surely isn’t it, but she powers it all the same with glamour and guts.
A key gambling scene features the kind of predictable storytelling where every bet goes a certain way to juice the drama. The result? An artificiality consumes the moment. That’s only the tip of the phony iceberg. It gets worse, much worse, and by the final reel we’re folding our arms and waiting for what “surprise” “Focus” has up its sleeve.
That’s not storytelling. It’s a second-rate magic trick.
We rarely get a sense of the characters’ back stories or motivations. Instead, we watch as the camera captures the dexterity demanded to rob people of their hard-earned possessions. Who are the heroes of the film again?
The film marks another misstep for Smith, who needs a hand picking projects. Anyone who can see M. Night Shyamalan’s last three films and say, “I wanna be in the M. Night business” has a problem.
“Focus” isn’t as awful as “After Earth,” but it shows Smith’s script radar needs some tinkering.
You can’t trust a con man. Nor can you trust a con artist movie that can’t stop lying long enough to tell its tale.
SECOND OPINION: Christy Lemire of RogerEbert.com says seeing Will Smith in a “return to form” performance is enough to make “Focus” worth your time.