Here's the thing I like about Focus: it's a trifle, but it knows it's a trifle and devotes itself to being the most pleasurable trifle it can be. It's a slick, smooth, sexy crime movie about con artists, double-crosses and romance. It's the sort of film that declares it's going to steal your wallet, and while you're watching your wallet it steals your watch instead. There's drama here, but the movie feels refreshingly low-stakes: this isn't about saving the world or pulling off the most difficult heist of all time or striking back against a corrupt corporation. It's just a movie about a couple of attractive hustlers trying to make some money.
One of those hustlers is Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, Men in Black), an experienced con artist who knows every trick in the book. The other is Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) an inexperienced con artist who demonstrates a lot of natural talent for the profession. Nicky takes Jess under his wing (and into his bed), shows her a few tricks and helps her launch a career. Their casual fling starts to get more serious, and soon they're an inseparable team. And then... well, I won't ruin it for you, but let's say that things take a fairly sharp left turn before the film hits the halfway mark.
There are a fair number of twists and turns served up before Focus hits the finish line, and I'm not entirely sure that they all add up in the end. That said, the film doesn't feel like its cheating, and at least some of its surprises are genuinely surprising. The rug-pulling sequences are fun, but the real fun comes in-between, as a tense scenario of some sort plays out and you're trying to figure out who's playing who and what their endgame might be. There's a terrific extended sequence involving a gleeful, wealthy gambler (B.D. Wong, Jurassic Park) waging a series of increasingly expensive (and increasingly ridiculous) bets with Smith and Robbie at a football game. When the film hits that suspenseful/funny/dramatic groove – and it hits it pretty regularly – it's a treat.
Focus isn't quite as delightfully witty as the best films along these lines (Charade, Ocean's 11), but the strong chemistry between the two leads helps compensate for that. Yes, Smith is old enough to be Robbie's dad (insert one of many recent editorials about the Hollywood gender age gap here), but the fact of the matter is that he's good and she's good and they're even better together. I like the way his cool wink of a performance mixes with her more openly enthusiastic work, and they both find some interesting notes to play as their relationship shifts during the film's second half. The MVP of the supporting cast is Gerald McRaney, who taps into the sort of imposing surliness he brought to Deadwood. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which he berates Smith's (lack of) values: “There's a lazy Sunday softness to your generation. Makes me uncomfortable.”
There are some conventional moments here, as the film has no interest in transcending or redefining the genre it belongs to. There are some boring creative choices made here and there, such as a scene that leans heavily on the overused Rolling Stones tune “Sympathy for the Devil.” Still, directors Glenn Ficcara and John Requa (best known for the enjoyably odd I Love You, Philip Morris) know why and how movies like this are supposed to work. The breezy tone, the likable performances and the just-clever-enough twists are enough to send you home with a smile on your face, which is a noble enough achievement.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 2015