Will Smith’s ‘Focus’ settles for being a grown-up good time

The con artist tale “Focus” is witty, charming and so sexy it makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” feel like a two-hour cold shower.

Well, technically “Fifty Shades of Grey” makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” feel like a two-hour cold shower, but I digress.

This is a volume business, world-class grifter Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) tells his protege, Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie, “The Wolf of Wall Street”). There’s no such thing as the one big score that sets you up for life so you can walk away. You just have to keep grinding.

If only writers-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”) had followed that advice and not spent the second half of the movie having Nicky chase million-dollar bets and an elaborate scheme involving Argentinian race cars, “Focus” could have been a classic.

Instead, it settles for being a grown-up good time.

We meet Nicky in New York as he’s setting up dinner reservations at an exclusive restaurant by pretending to be an internationally known chef. That meal, though, is interrupted by Jess, a stunning damsel in distress. Before long, he’s giving her a master class in deception, social engineering and good old-fashioned theft in a series of moves lent to the production by Las Vegan Apollo Robbins, who’s credited as “con artist adviser/pickpocket design.”

“You’re not gonna slap my face, are you?” Nicky asks in the middle of imperceptibly rifling through her pockets.


“You would if you knew where my hand was.”

Their chemistry is electric, even when he’s ridiculing her abilities to seduce a man, which is every bit as silly as goofing on LeBron James for being a terrible basketball player.

Honestly, leave these two in the same room long enough and they’d melt what’s left of the polar ice caps.

After Nicky leaves snowy Manhattan behind for New Orleans, Jess isn’t far behind, tracking him down for more lessons. Soon she’s being tutored on everything from how to cheat at poker to credit card skimming and dummy ATM machines to romantic-sounding scams like The Toledo Panic Button and The Little Blind Mouse. For her big audition, Nicky watches from a balcony as she pulls off a flurry of sophisticated pickpocketing in the French Quarter.

Nicky leads a crew of 30 pros who only need a brief distraction — a shouting match in a hotel lobby or what looks like a medical emergency in a cafe — and they come swarming in like a plague of sticky-fingered locusts, grabbing wallets, purses, jewelry, luggage, pretty much anything that isn’t nailed down.

When Nicky tells her there are teams like his stationed at every major hotel in the city, it’s chilling enough to make you never want to go anywhere near a Super Bowl — or whatever this event was called. Officially, it’s the XVIIth installment of the AFFA football championship pitting the Rhinos against the Thrashers, because there’s simply no way the National Football League would lend its name to something guaranteed to scare the bejeezus out of tourists.

Those early scenes are an intoxicating look at the sort of flashy one-on-one thievery rarely seen in movies.

Unfortunately, once Nicky makes a wildly escalating series of bets with a degenerate gambler (BD Wong), he kicks Jess to the curb and doesn’t resurface until three years later in Buenos Aires. There, he conspires with a Spanish racing team owner (Rodrigo Santoro) and his head of security (Gerald McRaney) to scam a rival owner. Then Jess shows up to throw a wrinkle into his plans.

This second half, which in many ways feels like an entirely different movie, is still clever and engaging. It’s just nowhere near as thrilling. We’ve seen large-scale hustles like this too many times to count.

“Focus” is as smooth and carefree as Smith has been onscreen in a decade. It’s the sort of charismatic role that reminds you how he became a leading man in the first place.

And it’s a star-making turn for Robbie — although truthfully, I couldn’t tell whether she’s a good actress or if she’s just so staggeringly attractive, that lizard part of my brain kept telling me she’s talented.

Ficarra and Requa have a knack for crafting truly inspired repartee. Whenever they keep things intimate, light and breezy, “Focus” stimulates the senses like few other movies in recent memories.

But in chasing that big score and aiming for something bigger and more dangerous, they, like Nicky, forget what made them successful in the first place.

It’s as though they lost their ability to concentrate, remain aware, adjust their perception or direct their attention.

If only there were a word for that.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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