As a comedy movie about con artists, “Focus” is entertaining enough to overlook its several weak points. Mainly because there is always a possibility that its main characters are holding something behind their back, we come to look at them with a certain level of distrust and accompanying distance in the end, but the movie cheerfully handles its tricky plot with the sense of fun, and it is also supported well by the nice chemistry generated between its two likable lead actors.
When Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie) come across each other for the first time during one evening at a fancy New York restaurant, something clicks between each other as they enjoy their time together, but their Meet Cute moment is far from being ordinary. As a first-class con artist, Nicky sees through Jess and her intention right from their first minute, and Jess eventually learns that she still needs more skills and experiences for being a very good con artist like Nicky, who later gives her a nice little lesson on how to distract target’s focus.
Fascinated and thrilled by Nicky’s skills, Jess wants to learn more of the art of con game from Nicky, and she soon finds herself joining Nicky’s big team consisting of various professional con artists including Farhad (Adrian Martinez) and Horst (Brennan Brown), Nicky’s two dependable – and crafty – lieutenants. A big football championship game is going to be held at New Orleans, and Nicky and his accomplices do not mind having another member to assist them in their many various schemes to snatch money and many other expensive goodies from thousands of small and big targets visiting New Orleans for the game (and Nicky’s crew is not the only ones coming to this big, lucrative hunting ground, by the way).
As shown in “The Sting” (1973) or “House of Games” (1987), it is always fun to watch how smart con artists get away with their devious schemes while taking money or something valuable from their unsuspecting targets, and “Focus” has a number of exciting moments as showing how Nicky and others handle their criminal operations with quick timing and smooth effortlessness. During one wonderful sequence in which Jess has to show that she is good enough to work with Nicky’s crew, this sequence fluidly follows the series of her sly movements around a bunch of targets on the busy street of New Orleans, and we cannot help but admire every step of her deft choreography which sometimes depends on a couple of clever improvised acts.
While they and other accomplices have lots of fun and thrill along with money during their successful operations, it looks like some feeling has been developed further between Nicky and Jess, but there is always a reserved attitude on Nick’s side for a very good professional reason. They are surely enjoying each other’s company regardless of whether they are working or not, but their way of living is based on lies and deceits, and trust is naturally not something easily earned in their deceptive world. Although he is nicknamed “Mellow”, Nicky is too experienced to fully accept the adoring approach of Jess, who may have some other thoughts behind her back even if she really likes Nicky.
The screenplay by the directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who previously directed “I Love You Philip Morris” (2009) and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011), takes a left turn around its second act and then enters a new situation in which Nicky and Jess encounter each other again three years later. In Buenos Aires, Nicky happens to be hired by Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a billionaire guy who also owns a leading world-class motorsport team. As a guy who will not mind any dirty tactic necessary for his win, Garriga wants to make it sure that his team will beat other competing teams in an upcoming race, so it is Nicky’s job to disguise himself as an angry Garriga’s employee willing to sell the crucial information to Garriga’s main opponent team.
However, when everything is ready for his first step into this scheme, Nicky sees Jess appearing along with Garriga at the party. While they must hide their past from Garriga, they are again drawn to each other as Nicky approaches to her more actively in this time, but nothing looks simple between them as usual despite some sparks still remained between them. Is this another part of Nicky’s plan? Did Jess really say goodbye to her former career to be Garriga’s girl?
The movie loses some of its interest as it continues to toy with that uncertain possibility in its increasingly unreliable plot, but the engaging interactions between Will Smith and Margot Robbie keep their film being floated amidst its lightweight mood during most of its running time. Compared to his very bland and regrettable turn in “After Earth” (2013), Smith is back in his element here with his intact star presence, and he and his co-star Margot Robbie, who held her own small place among the dirty rotten boys of “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), play off each other well with that tantalizing possibility of romance – or another con game. There is always a sort of heat between their characters, but we are never entirely sure about where it will lead them, and Smith and Robbie are clearly enjoying their performances on the screen.
They are also supported well by good actors having a small fun with their colorful archetype characters. B.D. Wong is flamboyant as a Chinese high roller during one turning point in the middle of the story, and Rodrigo Santoro is suitably obnoxious as a rich prick who deserves to be suckered, and Gerald McRaney is stern, formidable as Owens, Garriga’s right-hand guy who slowly begins to corner Nicky and Jess with his suspicious stare. As Nicky’s main accomplices, Brennan Brown and Adrian Martinez are amusing to watch in each own way, and Martinez is especially dexterous in his comic timing during his small conversation scene with Robbie.
Although its resolution is weak and predictable compared to the rest, “Focus” works as a breezy entertainment on the whole. Its story and characterization are thin to say the least, and there are many plot holes you can notice even during the viewing, but I liked its style and performances although it did not distract my focus as much as intended. I could often see through its moves, but I enjoyed how it made its moves anyway.