Movies about con men come in a few different varieties – from the broadly comical (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to the more dramatically entertaining (Catch Me If You Can) – but it’s rare to find one without humorous intentions because something about the character type lends itself to casual comedy and likable leads. One of those rarities is 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation starring a fresh-faced Will Smith, and now twenty two years later an older, wiser Smith has returned to the confidence game with the slick but slight Focus.
Nicky (Smith) is a career flimflammer who long ago graduated from picking pockets to managing a double-digit team of hustlers who target populated tourist areas like New Orleans during a big game stealing watches, wallets, purses, luggage and more. He finds a new protege in Jess (Margot Robbie) after conning his way into a meal at a fancy restaurant and meeting her as she attempts a sloppy swindle of her own. They hit it off, but after she proves her worth on the team’s latest big score he insists they go their separate ways. The pair meet again three years later when Jess interrupts a large-scale con in Buenos Aires, but it quickly becomes clear that nothing is the least bit clear when dealing with professional liars.
“Get their focus,” Nicky tells Jess during an early training session, “and you can take whatever you want.” It’s clear from the very beginning that she has his attention to the degree that it threatens to become a detriment. He leaves her behind after New Orleans to regain that focus, but seeing her again in Argentina shakes him ever so slightly off his game. Or does it?
One of the expected aspects of movies about con men is the understanding that any of the characters can be playing anyone else at any time, and half the fun for viewers is trying to stay one step ahead – or at least no more than one step behind – as the scams, reverse scams and triple twists start flying. Writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris) do a fine job in that regard by playing with audience expectations in smart ways.
Viewers familiar with the sub-genre will know when to expect the other shoe to drop, but there are two sequences that toy with those assumptions with varying degrees of success. The best of the two involves Nicky and Jess enjoying a football game and getting pulled into a wager with a wealthy stranger (the always great B.D. Wong). We know something is up, and we suspect we know the players involved too, but the scene surprises in both its duration and outcome. It’s he film’s highlight as it squeezes tension out of escalating dialogue exchanges and delivers a genuinely exciting back and forth, but it’s also one of the rare moments of real drama.
The leads are immensely likable, but that has far more to do with Smith and Robbie than it does Nicky and Jess. One of the problems is that unlike The Sting or the Ocean’s 11 films our leads here are ripping off every day folks. The back half of the film focuses on one wealthy target, but until then we’re meant to share in their enthusiasm as they steal from tourists simply enjoying an unassuming vacation. It’s difficult to find our wealthy and attractive antiheroes endearing.
Worse, while Smith and Robbie show real star power and sizzling chemistry their characters’ romance never really approaches the realm of convincing. Nicky falls too hard too fast leading him to lose his legendary cool – one scene even goes, wait for it, out of focus to show him going off his game – but we never really see why this would be the case. Robbie is an attractive woman, something the film wants us to be constantly aware of, but if there’s anything more to Nicky’s attraction to her it’s left off-screen.
This is Smith’s film, but Robbie more than proves herself as far more than just a pretty face. She’s a sharp and punchy ball of energy throughout, but when necessary she easily switches over to display an effortless grace. The role finds her midway between her wonderfully bombastic turn in The Wolf of Wall Street and her earthy performance in the upcoming Z for Zachariah, and it’s a range she seems quite comfortable playing between.
The third act is messy with twists and turns, but it’s also just plain messy. The actual scam at the heart of it seems simple enough, but it leaves viewers with numerous questions the film has no interest in answering. It’s not remotely close to the debacle that is Now You See Me, but there are more than a few head-scratching moments to be found. It works though because even as the mechanics of the scam blur before our eyes we’re left enjoying the idea of it all anyway thanks to the film’s smooth and affable presentation. It’s not deep, but it’s fun enough.
Focus achieves what recent misfires like After Earth and Men in Black 3 failed to do – it reminds us that Smith is a strong, grounded actor with real presence. Honest. I swear.
The Upside: Will Smith reminds us of his legitimate star power; visually appealing; never dull; smartly plays against audience expectations
The Downside: Plays fast and loose with the details; Smith and Robbie sizzle together but they lack romance; ending is sloppy in its attempt to satisfy
On the Side: The earliest incarnation of the film had Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart attached to star.