Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Focus” brings to mind Tony Gilroy’s similarly complex but more fun “Duplicity,” from a couple of years ago: a tale of love among the con men, in which emotion – considered weakness in this trade – becomes a factor.
“Focus” works hard and does manage to generate entertainment. But the strain shows and the creative team (also responsible for writing “Bad Santa” and “I Love You Philip Morris”) can’t seem to blend wit with plot complexity.
Will Smith plays Nicky, a boss among con artists (with a minor in pocket-picking), who recruits newbie Jess (Margot Robbie) for the light-fingered team he’s assembling for the Super Bowl. They swarm the sites filled with high-rollers, lifting wallets, watches, jewelry and purses in an elaborate and fruitful criminal enterprise.
But though Jess and Nicky seem to connect – including when he uses her as an unwitting shill in a major sting – he takes off with nothing more than a “Nice job” as a going-away present. So things seem tricky when they run across each other again a couple of years later in Buenos Aires, where Nicky is running a scam for the owner of a race-car team (Rodrigo Santoro).
The theme is misdirection and the ways we allow our focus to be diverted from what’s important while our pocket is being picked. The question, of course, remains the same: Can a con man fall in love? Or is it always a scam?
Ficcara and Requa keep things busy, but that’s not the same as making them convincing. The movie will have you guessing but the fact that you know to be wary means they haven’t fooled you that much.
Still, it’s nice to see Smith in solid insult-slinging form. He delivers his acidic one-liners with a deadpan edge so they cut even as they amuse. These are zingers but not wisecracks — and the writers know the difference.
Robbie makes a good foil for Smith and he gets other strong support from B.D. Wong, Gerald McRaney and several others.
Yet, by the end, your head isn’t spinning so much as aching. The best of these movies – think of “The Sting” – move so quickly and lightly that you end up with a slight buzz. “Focus,” on the other hand, forces you to work hard for its pleasures.