"Focus" is sleek, chic and ultimately slight, a fizzy romance of con games and double crosses between thieves who should know that warm human emotions have no place in their line of work. While the film is headlined by Will Smith (2013's "After Earth
"), it is luminous screen partner Margot Robbie (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street
") who snatches the film from under her older, more experienced co-star. Their constant tug-of-war as they struggle to keep the upper hand while falling for each other gives the narrative its spark, even if the picture as a whole doesn't ultimately lead to the depth or consequence one expects. It's a solid film by February release standards, but also no surprise that it didn't receive a more prestigious birth in the summer or fall.
Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie) meet in a hotel lounge, flirt for a bit, and then retire to his room. Before they go much further, Jess reveals an ulterior motive to which Nicky is already privy. It turns out they are both con artists, and the more seasoned Nicky, who runs an underground business specializing in the art of pickpocketing and swindling, sees in Jess a young woman wet behind the ears but quick to learn. She becomes his intern, protégé, and possibly something more, but once they make their latest score he callously sets her loose. When their paths cross again three years later in Buenos Aires, Nicky's feelings for Jess come flooding back. She is now in a relationship with his latest client, Raphael (Adrian Martinez), and makes it clear that her current beau is easily jealous and knows nothing of her criminal past. Staying away from one another will become mighty difficult, however, and not just because they are kind of, sort of in love; they also may very well still be playing each other.
Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.
"), "Focus" busts out with self-confidence and style. Save for a clunky interlude right near the end delivered by Nicky's close associate, Owens (Gerald McRaney), the dialogue is silky-smooth, made all the better when bounced between its performers. The cinematography by Xavier Pérez Grobet (2012's "What to Expect When You're Expecting
") buzzes with unique imagery and camera movements, from its use of mirrors and shiny facades to the sunshine-and-snow disparateness of its globe-trotting locations. The soundtrack is impeccably chosen; The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" hasn't been used this well on film since it was covered by Guns N' Roses in 1994's "Interview with the Vampire." The storya steady stream of deceptions and relationship banteris unchallenging, but goes down easily. It's "Ocean's Eleven
" meets "Out of Sight," a comparison that will be heard many times over but only because it's the perfect description.
In a film where virtually every character is a dishonest thief who makes a living off of stealing from, and taking advantage of, unsuspecting victims, it is a daunting task to get the viewer to care on a deeper level about anyone in view. By not delving into who Nicky and Jess are, what they want for their futures, or whether they even wish to go straight, Ficarra and Requa miss the mark on shading these people with more sympathetic complexity. Fortunately, Will Smith and Margot Robbie are effortlessly charismatic, and even if their romantic sizzle is more like a slow broil, they still get by on their respective singular appeal. As Nicky, Smith is best when he's manipulating situations and battling to get ahead, as when a high-dollar series of bets spiral out of control in a Super Bowl luxury box between himself and wealthy businessman Liyuan (a dynamite BD Wong). For her decidedly underwritten part, Robbie fills in the gaps left by the screenplay and ensures that Jess is resourceful, intelligent and fallible. Exuding an inner strength and maturity beyond the actress' twenty-four years, she is sensational for every minute of the film.
The third act of "Focus" is more understated than expected, not adding up to any earth-shattering revelations but also, thankfully, not losing its way in superficial trickery. In a movie where it is hard to trust anyone, whatever is between Nicky and Jess, for better or worse, feels genuine by the end. Whether what lies ahead for these two is rosy, well, that is seriously debatable. Judging them on their characters' actions alone, they shouldn't be liked, and yet Smith and Robbie are ingratiating all the same, hinting at layers existing beneath the surface that are not otherwise touched upon. Inconsequential but stimulatingly grown-up, "Focus" rides a wave of cool to the finish.