Buried in the end credits of Focus, the latest drama vehicle for star Will Smith, lies the annotation to someone named Apollo Robbins and gives him credit as con artist supervisor and pickpocket designer. If the various deceptions and complex deceits pulled off within the film are cribbed from his real life, then I definitely would love to see the documentary on him.
Regardless, this is fiction and Focus trades in that unseemly netherworld where Nicky (Will Smith) defiantly tells his nubile and beautiful new partner-in-crime Jess (Margot Robbie) that there are two types of people in this world: hammer and nails. From their “meet cute” after a con-gone-wrong on her part, the rest of the film spins its deviant wheels as we observe the pair (and Nicky’s whole elaborate crew) trying not to become the nails.
After the initial character setting of the pair, in which Nicky teaches Jess the head-spinning rules of the game, Focus moves quickly. Transposing the action to various electric, neon-lit locales and very expensive (yet over decorated) looking hotel rooms and ocean side villas, Nicky searches for the big con, eventually settling on the high stakes world of Euro-car racing and one of the circuit’s owners, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).
But complicating matters is Garriga’s suspicious partner, Owens, played by Gerald McRaney in a terrifically gruff performance and Nicky’s own confused feelings for Jess. As any purveyor of the con-game genre knows, things only get sticky when feelings enter the picture and Focus slowly blurs the line between professional and personal as the pair try to straddle their grifter lifestyle and navigate the normal emotions of attraction.
Will Smith has been derided for some unusual choices lately (After Earth, anyone?) but with Focus, he’s given a safe and even modest role as Nicky, the suave gentleman criminal we might admire. There are even a few flashes of greatness, such as the long take that holds on his face during an incredibly tense scene of the film that allows all shades of remorse, reflection and quick-thinking to gleam from his eyes. It’s in a quiet moment like this that reminds one of his star-making poise.
Less successful is Margot Robbie as Jess, easy on the eyes to say the least, but failing to invest her carnal-induced performance with anything other than carnality. Buried within the soulless interiors and expensive cars, she simply becomes part of the furniture, which is a detriment to the overall impact of the film since her connection to the action should be its beating heart. In her previous effort, The Wolf of Wall Street, that level of plasticity was warranted in her role. Here, it feels redundant.
Yet, part of the fun of Focus is continually trying to stay ahead of the con. Accustomed (and expecting) to having the rug pulled out from underneath us within such a film, writers and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa understand the necessity of surprise, never telegraphing any of their moves and allowing the film to find an amusing, brisk rhythm. If the unconvincing repertoire between Smith and Robbie feels a bit undercooked, they make up for it through impeccable cosmetic beauty where even a hard thrown punch or gushes of tears don’t smear their make-up or make them any less unhandsome. After all, Focus isn’t meant as a hard-core treatise on the mores of society, but an entertaining romp where the consequences are just as transparent as the elaborate con.
The film opens in wide release across North Texas on Friday, February 27th.