Pretty much as soon as the sound era started in movies, the con man has been charming and lying his way into audience’s hearts. It makes sense; the art of the con is all about putting on a show and making magic with words, so it fits into the world of film rather eloquently. ‘Focus’ is the latest con artist comedy to hit theater screens, this time headlined by the Fresh Prince himself and that girl you fell in love with faster than DiCaprio in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. It’s far from the greatest example of the genre in movie history, but it’ll scratch an itch if you’ve been craving a little conning.
Will Smith stars as Nicky, a veteran con man who opens the film in the middle of getting conned and he knows it. He exchanges some healthy rounds of flirtation with Jess (Margot Robbie) in a hotel bar, which leads to a trip to her room and her boyfriend bursting in with a gun to demand money. It’s all an act that Nicky spots from a mile away, so he calls them on it and walks. Jess then pursues Nicky and insists that he train her in the art of the con, as she considers it her only gift and hope of survival.
That leads to a colorful trip to New Orleans where big money is made and sparks fly between the attractive leads until Nicky reveals it was all an act. Then the screen goes black and the story picks up again a few years later. Nicky is setting up another con surrounding a big Formula One race when Jess saunters into the frame and sets his heart all aflutter. Essentially, that kicks off a second con movie that feels more like a sequel to the first half than a natural continuation of the narrative. Like most sequels, it can’t quite live up to the original.
The movie comes from the writing/directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who got their start by scripting the cult classic ‘Bad Santa’ (along with significant uncredited help from the Coen brothers) and then proved they were also intriguing filmmakers with ‘I Love You Philip Morris’ and ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’. The duo have a knack for quirky characterization and machine-gun dialogue that gives a good name to both overused techniques. They also know how to weave a colorful world with their camera. In short, they’re the right guys to deliver a con man comedy and do a pretty damn good job, aside from the awkward split structure.
The big problem is that any con artist tale takes time to build before the giddy payoff, and forcing the audience to go through that slow-burn narrative machine twice proves to be a little exhausting and unsatisfying. Despite all the fun, it’s an awkward sit. By the time the second round of revelations arrive, it’s hard not to simply count off all the clockwork payoffs while desperately anticipating the roll of the end credits. Still, despite the unfortunate structuring and lack of ambition to stretch the material out of established genre tropes, there’s a hell of a lot of old-timey entertainment to enjoy, a few cleverly constructed plot twists to look on with awe, and some damn fine performances from some underused character actors like Adrian Martinez and Gerald McRaney.
The big attraction is of course the central star pairing. Will Smith finally drops his desperate attempts at serious actorly recognition and delivers one of those loose charming performances that made him a star in the first place. It’s so much fun to watch him spin amusing cons in expensive suits that you’ll wish he’d been recruited by Clooney and Soderbergh for one of the ‘Ocean’s’ adventures. Yet, even if Smith is in crowd-pleasing form, he’s still blown off the screen by Margot Robbie. The Australian actress is almost unfairly beautiful, and backs it up with buckets of onscreen charisma and genuine acting chops. It’s impossible to peel your eyes away from her every time she’s in focus, no matter how little she has to do. The gal already feels like a movie star even if she doesn’t have the box office clout to prove it yet. (If the ‘Suicide Squad’ movie gives her a Harley Quinn half as compelling to play as the character from Batman cartoons and comics, that should be rectified shortly.)
Watching Smith and Robbie swap chemistry, saliva and lies in such a cleverly constructed entertainment machine is more than enough to justify the ticket price. If the movie doesn’t quite live up to its very appealing surface, well maybe that’s more the result of the limitations of the con artist than anything else. After all, if you don’t feel a little cheated after a good con, then the man didn’t do his job, now did he?