“There’s no room for heart in this game.” The entire nature of the con genre rests on this rule, and thus the fun of con films stems from the main characters flagrant disregard of it. In fact, some of the best dramas about con artists are relationship dramas: The Grifters, The Lady Eve, Heartbreakers (time is gonna tell on that one!). Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) breathe life into the genre with Focus, a frisky con film with plenty of flashy diversion, compliments of leads Will Smith and Margot Robbie keeping you from seeing too far beneath the surface.
Nicky’s (Smith) conman roots run deep; it’s a profession his father and grandfather became legends at. When he meets fledgling pickpocket Jess (Robbie), the two decide to help each other out by fleecing people during one wild Super Bowl weekend. The two part, never to see each other again, until three years later when Nicky tries to con a race car driver (Rodrigo Santoro) who happens to be dating Jess.
Ficarra and Requa haven’t failed me yet with their work. From I Love You Philip Morris to Crazy, Stupid Love and now, Focus, the only connecting thread between the trio is love’s a bitch! A bitch that often messes up your plans for the future. Focus borrows liberally from the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch comedy Trouble in Paradise, a story also about two con artists who fall in love and find their mutual attraction to crime sexy. Like Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins in that movie, Robbie’s Jess and Smith’s Nicky aren’t looking to have their hearts stolen (pun intended!), but the thrill of the chase, this being the chase for other’s possessions, which turns them on. Nicky’s attempt to teach Jess how touch distracts people – while one hand’s in the open, the other is somewhere else…preferably stealing something – is a sexy scene with its own brand of Lubitsch touch. (A similar scene in Trouble in Paradise has the two cons stealing jewelery, wallets, and a garter off each other).
Originally envisioned as a reteam of Crazy, Stupid costars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the script would have certainly played to their strengths, if not taxing them greatly. Jess’ wide-eyed eagerness and inability to take Nicky’s lines would have been expertly played by Stone; the same with Gosling’s cool confidence and hopes of trumping his father. None of this would have stretched the two, especially since these are themes they played on in Crazy, Stupid, Love, so it’s nice that Smith and Robbie are allowed to enter into the frame with no preconceived notions.
This is the first R-rated film Will Smith has done since 2003, and it’s desperately needed. Smith proves he’s still got the Fresh Prince moves that made him Mr. Fourth of July in the 1990s. Nicky blends all of Smith’s flashiest characters, particularly Mike Lowry of the Bad Boys films, and lets the actor show he’s still got swagger and charm to spare. The movie briefly introduces the possibility of Nicky having a gambling addiction, part of a con during the first half, and in a series of increasingly reckless bets, you could easily see how this could turn into a drama. His chemistry with Robbie is electric – their love scenes allow them room for stage business lending a naturalness to their intimacy – and when the two work separate angles in the second half things lag because these two are better playing off each other.
For her part, Robbie steals the show against the veteran Smith. There’s a hint of her Naomi from The Wolf of Wall Street; she’s the honeypot whose beauty rocking a bikini distracts sex-crazed men (or a pretty skeezy Robert Taylor). The brunt of this happens once the two go their separate ways. But, like with Jupiter Ascending, Robbie plays the “blind mouse” too often, aka the one not privy to all the information and often utilized to distract other men with her hysterics. This works greatly during the Super Bowl betting sequence, but runs out of steam, and looks like a total lack of confidence in the character, during the climax con. Too often, Nicky – and the script – find Jess too inept for any big cons, yet provides no reason for why that is. The script wants us to believe it’s because she’s an amateur, but when Nicky’s right hand man (Adrian Martinez) is privy to and is given more to do that seems moot. Robbie works with what she has, and it’s because of her tenacity within the role that you applaud her for trying to make a mark in a role that Stone would have played contentedly.
Like with Robbie’s character, the script, filled with humorous asides and some great classic-style dialogue exchanges, has a tendency to repeat what works, leading to two very distinct halves of the film. The first half deals with Jess and Nicky’s introduction and the fleecing of Super Bowl attendees (unlike Hot Tub Time Machine 2, this movie makes a point of giving a reason for being filmed in New Orleans). The network of con artists Nicky employs shows the grift as a network of survival, a corporation of sorts, and not of living high on the hog. Thus, according to Nicky, the “long con,” the one big score that allows for retirement, is a fantasy. The movie has a great series of bait and switches leading up to Nicky’s big betting sequence against B.D. Wong’s Liyuan. This is a great conman sequence where the suspense is ratcheted up methodically before leading to a reveal you don’t expect. By the time this happens in the last half, it feels tired because not that sense of deliberateness, especially taking into account Nicky and Jess haven’t seen each other in three years. The first half relies on skill, the second on pure coincidence, and it leads to a rather uneven mix.
Despite the two divergent halves, a lack of “focus” if you will, Focus is an incredibly engaging con dramedy. Robbie and Smith are fantastic (and Smith shows he’s still got it!). It isn’t Ficarra and Requa’s best script but they certainly know how these movies should go and do their utmost to keep audiences from seeing the same thing. Too often con films feel staid and dry, but Focus is fresh, flashy, and just plain fun.