Will Smith fans, take note: your man is back and in top form in Focus, a shell game of a movie that will have you second-guessing yourself just about every time you think you know what’s really going on. It’s a movie about con artists and confidence schemes that’s a con in and of itself, so if it pulls the wool over your eyes more than once, don’t feel bad. You won’t be alone, and getting fooled is part of the fun.
Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a career confidence man who seems to have the perfect apprentice literally fall into his arms when he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), a beautiful and talented pick-pocket with tremendous potential but in serious need of schooling in the art of the con. Though at first he has no intention of adding a new member to his crew, Jess proves to be implacable in her resolve to ride Nicky’s coattails to the next level. It doesn’t take long for their professional relationship to become intimately personal, but Nicky’s been doing this long enough to know that there’s simply no room for heart or love in their business. “Heart gets you killed,” is how his own mentor put it to him once, and the words stuck. So once the job’s done, Nicky makes a hard choice in regards to Jess, and then tries to move on.
Flash forward a few years, and Nicky’s in Buenos Aires taking a meeting with Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a billionaire Formula One racing team owner who of course loves to win, but loves even more to make his competition look like fools in the process. Garriga’s security chief, Owens (Gerald McRaney, HBO’s “House of Cards”), immediately dislikes Nicky and everything about him, including his idea to take advantage of Garriga’s fellow owners’ cutthroat competitiveness in order to humiliate and fleece them, but Garriga buys in, and the game is on.
But just when Nicky’s ready to get his game face on, well, the girl walks in. Suddenly, there’s Jess hanging on Garriga’s arm, by all appearances as intimate with Nicky’s new business partner as Nicky ever had been years ago, if not more, and any chance that this was just going to be another job goes up in a cloud of engine exhaust.
In many ways, Focus falls right in line thematically with most of the other films written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also handle directing duties in this film. Most audiences will know the duo best from their direction of the 2011 romantic “dramedy” Crazy, Stupid, Love, but prior to that film Ficarra and Requa wrote and directed I Love You Phillip Morris, and penned the scripts for Bad Santa and the 2005 remake of Bad News Bears. These films all have as a common thread between them some variation of the charming, amoral rogue who serves as a mentor and a guide, someone willing to talk at length about the tools of their trade, whether that trade be con artistry, seduction, burglary, or even baseball, often doing so in such a sly manner that those listening to the master instruct have no idea that they’re being played. Ficarra and Requa are clearly fascinated by and have great affection for the concept of “the gentleman rogue”, and continue in Focus to mine that character for storytelling potential.
What also falls in line in Focus with other films by this talented film making duo is the level and quality of the dialogue, as well as the attention to character and development of relationships in a way that feels organic to the progression of the film. While it may look obligatory in a film such as this that the two leads fall into bed together, Ficarra and Requa show us enough of Nicky and Jess early on through their often very funny interactions and Jess’s unorthodox internship that it makes sense they would be drawn to one another, and why one would make such a strong impression on the other. Too often in films where the marketing of a film depends on audiences buying into the romance that develops, too little attention is paid in the staging to making that romantic development actually make sense. Here, in Focus, that task is made much more difficult by the fact that the characters involved are by definition liars, and by occupational necessity do not let their guard down or make themselves vulnerable. To their credit, Ficarra and Requa make it work, and work well.
Where Focus stands apart from their work to date is just how much the film itself is a con. As Nicky explains in the film, the con is all about misdirection and in some cases subliminal suggestion, and in delivering a film about con artists to the audiences the writer/directors often use the same principles to guide audience expectations to where they need them to be. To explain just how they do this would be to spoil far too much of the film’s fun; rather, it’s best to simply say that if you go see this film (and you should), you may find yourself at first trying to play the skeptic and not get taken in, only to get fooled later. Don’t work too hard to try to see just how you’re being played here — just follow where the film leads and enjoy the “gotcha” moments, because they’re good ones.
Now, none of what Ficarra and Requa deliver in any of their films works without a lead who simply lives and breathes “cool”, and there are few working in Hollywood today who can do that as effortlessly as Will Smith does. Playing Nicky falls right into his wheelhouse, and he delivers just the kind of understated suave and savvy that audiences tend to get when he’s at the top of his game. But as we’ve seen throughout his acting career, it’s not just the “cool” that Smith plays well. He may win you over with the easy smile and the banter, but its what he conveys with his eyes in the difficult moments, as he does here with Nicky at times where he feels his guard dropping at the worst possible time with the girl that proves to be his weakness, that keeps you watching and engaged in what he’s doing and feeling.
Smith is paired with arguably the perfect partner in crime on screen in the simply stunning Margot Robbie, who blew audiences away last year doing more than holding her own opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Just as she did in that film, Robbie commands the screen in her every shot, not just with her looks but also with the emotion in her eyes and expression, always authentic and interesting. Hers is arguably the viewpoint that audiences will connect with most in the film, in terms of how so much of what she sees and learns about Nicky’s world and the dangers of being with someone so clearly defined by that world are revelatory to her. With her work here, Robbie shows she’s the real deal in terms of leading ladies, someone to keep an eye on in the years to come for her talent and versatility.
Oh, and don’t be surprised if you walk out of this film feeling just a little more paranoid about how, when, and where you use your credit cards. If all of the above in terms of characters, relationships, charm and cinematic sleight of hand do nothing for you, then at least take away from the film just how vulnerable we all can be in certain settings to smart criminals in the digital age. Whether it’s pick-pocketing, credit card spoofing, identity theft, or the “long con”, the film just makes it all look so very easy, and those of us not in the know look like such easy marks. While that’s fun to watch unfold in a movie, there’s no arguing that it’s anything but fun when it happens in the real world. So when you go see Focus, start building safer habits by paying for your tickets at the box office with cash.
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.