Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus would be a really good piece of pure entertainment if not for one crucial flaw, one that’s unfortunately so glaring it’s impossible to ignore. That mistake is the casting of the film’s leads, Will Smith and his romantic interest, Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), who, while not bad in any common sense of the word, are an on-screen couple devoid of any real verve or chemistry. This is true of them separately and in tandem, and it is a crippling mistake for a movie that’s channeling a sort of Steven Soderbergh-esque cool in the vein of Ocean’s 11 (2001) or even Out of Sight (1998), and which fancies itself as sexy.
Smith, for all of his middlebrow appeal, is no George Clooney when it comes to genuine charm — and he’s also perhaps the least sensual leading man in modern film. Add Robbie to the mix, who looks and speaks like little more than Jaime Pressly Redux, despite a solid performance, and there’s just no spark there. It’s a great pity, too, since Focus is occasionally incredibly and genuinely clever and has a few honest surprises in it, something that feels like it’s becoming rarer and rarer. What’s ingenious about the film is the way Ficarra and Requa — who co-wrote and directed — are playing not only with the con man subgenre, but with the kind of clichés the audience has come to expect from many films. They’re conning the audience as much as Smith’s character Nicky’s conning everyone else in the movie. A sequence in the middle of the film only works because of a presupposed gambling problem with Smith’s character and some presumably ham-fisted use of “Sympathy for the Devil,” before it’s totally flipped around into something wholly satisfying. The same can be said for the film’s climax and the way it unfolds in unseen ways. Add in some solid dialogue and occasional fits of creative filmmaking and you’ve got a nice piece of entertainment.
But then there’s the plot, which is great in theory, and involves Nicky mentoring Jess, teaching her how to rip off tourists in New Orleans before they fall for one another. Eventually, thanks to Nicky’s businesslike attitude, he calls things off. Then they run into each other years later. In many ways, Focus is more a romance below the veneer of a crime thriller, which would be fine (especially with the kind of weirdly sweet way the film wraps up) except for Smith and Robbie. So much of the film is just their characters interacting or revolving around one another that it’s a major problem that they’re so dull together. It’s a testament to how good the rest of Focus can be that it’s able to survive such a regrettable miscalculation. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.