“Focus” is a slick, suave and smart caper from writing-directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who also directed the underrated comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love”). It’s a dazzling tale about con artists that teases and tantalizes but manages to hold your interest throughout.
Veteran conman and sleight-of-hand pickpocket Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) takes the less-skilled but eager Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) under his wing and trains her in the ways of skillful swindling. The moment he sets eyes on her in a Big Easy night club, he never misses a beat as he quickly sizes up her scam. He plays along, flipping the con by exposing her mistakes. At the same time, he’s impressed with this sexy novice.
Jess is desperate to rise above just fleecing rich guys for their spare change, so she tries to work her way onto Nick’s band of high-stake thieves, which has gathered in New Orleans, to skim the crowds gathered for a football championship game. Nicky allows himself to be seduced, recognizing how the arrangement might serve his own ends. Technically he doesn’t need her but she could be a bonus. Jess proves her worth to Nicky and they become lovers. She’s in love and ready to learn the tricks but when he abruptly breaks her heart and leaves her in the back seat of a getaway car, she’s gutted. Three years later, their paths cross again in Buenos Aires, in the middle of a high stakes racecar circuit. The mystery deepens as she appears on the arm of his rich new boss, racing mogul Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Are we to believe her claims that she has been reinvented as a sweet romantic who got out of the game or is she lying in wait as a now accomplished trickster who feels that it’s her turn to con him?
For me, chemistry is the key to making this film work and it features charming and charismatic performances from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who both slip easily into their roles. The real “Focus” in the film is the sparky relationship between the pair. He’s a master of trickery but he may have met his match in this sexy novice who turns out to be a fast and fleet sparring partner. Their characters flirt amicably as he strips her of her valuables — wallet, watch, her ring — one after the other. It’s like a magician pulling out scarves and it’s such fun to watch. Smith revels in the opportunity to play the super-slick Nicky but for me, Margot Robbie was the standout. Her Jess is instantly an accessible and marvelously gutsy character who is both vulnerable and yet brassy. Following on from a great performance in The Wolf Of Wall Street, she works wonderfully here. You’re never 100 percent sure whether she’s being played or doing the playing, whether she’s the cat or the mouse. She is versatile enough to breeze through the lighter scenes and strong enough to carry the more serious emotional and heavy issues when they arise.
Focus is great fun, it’s certainly not predictable and with twists and turns at every corner, I found this colourful romp across the criminal world very entertaining. It gives us a pleasant change from the Academy Award seriousness and it’s good to see Smith resurrect his career somewhat after the disastrous “After Earth”. It’s really thanks to two strong lead performances that “Focus” is such a sexy, glossy and satisfying ride – well worth a watch.