Focus: The con is on

by Mark Burger

With Focus, we have Will Smith and Margot Robbie, both very attractive and personable, playing it cool and chic as Nicky Spurgeon and Jess Barrett, a pair of con artists who spend much of their time trying to outsmart and outwit the other while engaging in the obligatory romantic parrying.

In their mutual vocation, he’s the expert, she’s the acolyte. She wants to learn and wants him to teach her the tricks of the trade. It’s “a game of focus,” he tells her, tutoring her in the ways of picking pockets, pilfering purses, lifting wallets and scamming just about anyone and everyone they encounter. It’s a good thing Smith and Robbie are so inherently likable, lest audiences consider them for the criminals they really are.

The writer/director duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have delivered a predictably sleek and glossy romp, fronted by a pair of leads so photogenic that the 20-year age difference between them scarcely matters. Then again, Focus is in the game of style, and Smith and Robbie are nothing if not stylish.

Focus peaks midway through, when, after having bilked Super Bowl tourists in New Orleans to the collective tune of $1.2 million, Nicky and Jess attend the game and encounter B.D. Wong’s Liyuan, a cackling compulsive gambler who engages Nicky in a deliriously wild series of escalating bets, each one crazier than the last. This is unquestionably the best sequence in the picture, with Wong upping Smith and Robbie’s gamesmanship and, indeed, stealing the entire film.

Then Wong disappears (unfortunately) and the story jumps ahead three years to Buenos Aires, where Nicky is contracted by racing magnate Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to sell bogus technology to his main rival (Robert Taylor) “” only to discover that Garriga is currently keeping company with Jess.

At this stage of the film, however, the momentum begins slowing and it’s not long before Focus begins tripping up on its own plot twists. Garriga is hardly as interesting as Liyuan, and though Gerald McRaney has some amusing scenes as Garriga’s patently cynical hatchet man, the remainder of the film is spent waiting for the big windup “” the last big twist that brings the story full circle and the film to an end. It’s there, rest assured, but by the time it arrives Focus truly has lost its focus, to say nothing of its rhythm and snap. !