Put your wallet deep into your front pocket. Now push it a little deeper. Keep your purse very close to your body. Now pull it in just a little closer. Heck, after watching “Focus,” you might be tempted to just give up altogether.
The art of pickpocketing has never looked easier or more glamorous than when orchestrated by Will Smith. And there’s never been an artful dodger that looked like Margot Robbie. Getting the short con right is the charm of “Focus,” and the goodwill generated by the setup carries the film even when the long con is, should I say, a bit too manipulated and contrived.
The story has Will Smith playing a master thief or a confidence man called Nicky. He’s a mystery; even his name seems elusive. One day, he takes on a protégé named Jess (played by Margot Robbie from “Wolf of Wall Street”). She is the kind of woman who can cause almost anyone to lose focus, hence the title of the film. Nicky explains in a bit of clever courting that the key to the confidence game is diversion. And in Jess, Nicky sees something very distracting – what guy wouldn’t?
Nicky is heavily into the business of the short con – a crime that is over in minutes and is aimed principally at taking everything in one’s wallet. Jess asks him about the long con, a crime heavily planned and rehearsed and complicated, taking a longer time to complete and promising a much higher payoff. Nicky dismisses such a game as fantasy. He’s a working stiff, and his job is to steal money a little bit at a time.
The writing and directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (they wrote “Bad Santa” and co-directed “I Love You Phillip Morris”) get this caper movie just about right. The dialogue is sharp and the narrative slick and entertaining. The zippy and sexy first hour is tough to sustain, as the action moves locations and picks up after the passage of three years. This break slows the pace substantially, but gives Smith and Robbie a chance to build on the early chemistry. Smith works hard to genuinely sell his serious romantic interest in Robbie. Both keep us on the defensive, because it is tough to believe anything either of them are saying. And the film has fun with whether a confidence man (or woman) can ever have a normal relationship. The professional lies just get in the way.
Gerald McRaney, who is seeing a lot of work these days (see his fine work in Netflix’ “House of Cards”), has an entertaining turn in “Focus” playing an abrasive security agent for a rich playboy in Buenos Aires. The scenes where Smith and McRaney go head-to-head are fun to watch, because even at his age, McRaney is able to be intimidating. And comic relief comes in the raunchy form of Adrian Martinez, who has some of the funniest lines in the film, playing a computer expert who works with Nicky. Much of the action centers around a lot of fancy dialogue and the verbal gymnastics are immensely entertaining, even if they are ultimately surrounded by a sleight of hand that is a bit too much to take.
“Focus” is a smart choice for Smith, whose last significant outing was the 2013 M. Night Shyamalan clunker “After Earth.” “Focus” will help reset things for Smith, who will be 47 this year, and is entering a different stage of his career–less charming and youthful and wiser and more serious. The Fresh Prince looks more like George Clooney here and the comparisons to “Out of Sight,” the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel that starred Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, are not unwarranted. Smith should do more of this in the future.
“Focus” ultimately asks whether confidence men can fall in love with each other? Who’s conning whom?