With Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney. Written by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. Directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. 104 minutes.
FOCUS is not one of the great con artist films, along the lines of “The Sting” or “House of Cards.” It is, nonetheless, an enjoyable and colorful film with several surprising twists and turns (some more plausible than others), and with two attractive leads in Will Smith and Margot Robbie. You don’t have to check your brain at the door, exactly, but you might want to set it to cruise control.
Smith plays Nicky, a charming con man who prefers to work small time, high volume operations. In what amounts to a prologue he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), who needs rescuing from someone in a restaurant bar. When it turns out she’s in the game herself it leads to a couple of amusing scenes including one that–for film buffs with long memories–may recall the “meet cute” in “Trouble in Paradise” (1932).
The story then jumps to New Orleans for the Super Bowl where Jess has tracked Nicky. He is planning to fleece as many of the rubes as possible with a team of confederates including the comical Farhad (Adrian Martinez). We see them in operation as Jess takes on what amounts to an apprenticeship and becomes involved with Nicky. The section concludes with an increasingly preposterous series of bets involving a Chinese gambler (B.D. Wong).
This leads to a jump in time and place where Nicky has become involved with an auto racer (Rodrigo Santoro) in Buenos Aires. There’s a thuggish factotum (Gerald McRaney) and, surprise, Jess turns up in an unexpected way as well. For viewers looking for a single story, this is going to baffling, because the film really consists of three or four consecutive stories with only Nicky and Jess appearing throughout. The payoff has several surprises and will either leave you satisfied or annoyed at what has turned into a shaggy dog story.
What makes it work are the colorful characters and the changing scenery. We go from New York to New Orleans to Buenos Aires, and from hotel rooms to swank ballrooms to sky boxes. Just as we’re settling in, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who are credited as co-writers and co-directors on the film, pull the rug out from under us. That, of course, is the point of the film both as a storytelling strategy and as a theme. Nicky keeps telling Jess that the secret to a con is to keep the mark’s focus while you’re relieving them of their valuables from where they’re not looking.
Smith is a fine actor who has done better work elsewhere but certainly isn’t phoning it in here. His Nicky can turn on the charm but also has some deep-buried wounds. Or does he? It could be part of the con. Robbie is “the pretty young thing” and carries that off, as in “Wolf of Wall Street,” with hints that there may be more there if she gets a role that’s sufficiently challenging. In the meantime, personality and good looks get them both through this.
You can try to follow the various cons, but “Focus” will find ways to distract you. For a movie like this, that’s what it’s all about.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.