Since I saw THE STING for the first time, the con artist movie has basically been ruined for me, because I learned that in any film about these tricksters, you have to assume that everyone is lying. And if you're looking for it hard enough, odds are you'll find the lie early enough that when the con is finally funny revealed, it's anticlimactic. That's not to say there haven't been dozens of really enjoyable films about flim-flam men and women, but often it's the characters—and not the the con itself—who are the most interesting part of these films. And this is certainly the case for FOCUS, the latest from Will Smith who has been noticeably absent from movies since ANOTHER EARTH tanked two years ago (unless you count his cameo in last year's WINTER’S TALE, which I never will).
Focus gives it a worthy try, not only executing a handful of detailed cons and walking us through the setups and tricks to the payoff, but also diving into the keys that make Smith's Nicky Spurgeon an expert in reading and manipulating people. Some of it seems a bit outrageous, but very little of it feels out of the realm of complete unbelievability. Nicky recognizes that getting people to do what you want is a science—a collection of psychological tools that gets a person to believe exactly what you want them to.
One night, Nicky meets Jess (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET's Margot Robbie), a seeming damsel in distress at the bar of a fancy restaurant, where another patron is drunkenly hitting on her. They strike up a lovely conversation, and end up in her hotel room, where she and a male counterpart attempt to pull the jealous husband routine on Nicky for money, which he spotted miles early and laughs off the whole incident. But Jess is impressed not only with Nicky's powers of observation but also appreciates his tips on doing it right the next time, and she asks to be taken under his wing to learn and work with him. Smith and Robbie have a sharp, wicked, beautiful chemistry, and watching them play off each other is one of the real joys of FOCUS. Sadly, there's also a convoluted plot that pulls them apart once their first big con is executed, after which Nicky leaves Jess in the wind after a big score (he does give her her cut, to be fair), but he also makes her a much better con artist in the process.
The film jump ahead three years, and we catch Nicky as he's setting up his next big con in the world of auto racing, working for a sponsor (Rodrigo Santoro) who wants to have the edge with new technology he's invented. To be safe, he hires Nicky to pull together a scam to undercut his competitors with shitty tech that appears genuine. The sponsor's security man (a nice turn by Gerald McRaney) doesn't trust Nicky, and neither did I. Just as the plan is about to be set in motion, Jess appears at Santoro's side, and Nicky is visibly shaken. She claims she isn't running a game on her new man and is simply his girlfriend, but that doesn't stop Nicky from laying it on thick with her in an effort to win her back.
I'm not 100 percent sure the way the con and the film play out makes total sense. Obviously, I won't give away the ending, but I'm not sure I could if I wanted to because there are a few key questions that aren't explained, and there are lingering questions about who knew what when that could determine whether the outcome is genius or utterly random. Co-writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE; I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, and writers of BAD SANTA) handle most of the fast talk and trickery with great skill and precision, so it's a little shocking that the end is so muddled and unsure (I'm sure they don't think so, but it is). FOCUS is aided tremendously by the sheer charisma of the actors, including key supporting roles by McRaney, Adrian Martinez as Nicky's right-hand man Farhad, and BD Wong as a gambling man who takes advantage of Nicky's one weakness.
But if you look at the film too closely, some of its tricks reveal themselves and sour what is often a energetic, nicely shot and well-acted endeavor. I'm still going to recommend FOCUS (barely) because it's always good to see Smith at the top of his game, and Robbie is not only a sight to behold but a genuine acting talent (I saw Z FOR ZACHARIAH at Sundance in January, and it's clear we're only just beginning to sense her range as an actor). I enjoy watching actors make the most of material that is not as strong as they are, and for that reason, FOCUS might be worth checking out. Just keep an eye on your watch.