Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie
Two thoughts kept coming to me as I watched Focus, the latest film from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love): One, if Cary Grant made films today, he would probably star in this one because it's a piece which relies heavily on the charisma and charm of its lead actor to carry the day, and because it has a somewhat old school romantic caper in an exotic locale vibe to it; two, Margot Robbie is going to be a star. She's just got "it," whatever that is. As for the film itself, Focus is the sort of thing that Hollywood increasingly seems to be moving away from - mid-budget studio features not based on existing material, not intended to be part of a franchise (or "shared universe"), a star vehicle aimed at adults - but which reminds us of why there ought to remain some room in the marketplace for works like it. Focus isn't reinventing the wheel and it isn't going to end the year as one of cinema's "bests," but its an entertaining picture with its own particular delights, and it's going to be a real shame if movies of this type actually do become extinct.
Will Smith stars as Nicky, a third generation con artist who, out of professional curiosity, allows himself to be seduced by Jess (Margot Robbie), a grifter whose game is to lure men back to her hotel room and then, with the help of a male partner posing as her jealous husband, rob them. When the "husband" busts into the room, Nicky is quick to let them know that the game is up and offers them some tips to help them pull off the scam successfully next time, and then later on, when he and Jess are alone, he gives her a further tutorial on how to lift things from an unsuspecting mark. Wanting to learn more, Jess tracks Nicky down and talks him into letting her audition to join his crew, showing off her skills through a series of small cons which convince Nicky that she's worthy of being brought into the bigger game. However, though she proves to be a valuable member of his team (albeit it one whose participation in the biggest part of his scheme is only revealed to her after it's been completed), he decides that he needs to cut ties with her as a result of the feelings that have begun to develop between them. Having been taught by his father that emotional involvement with anyone will undermine his ability to work, he pays Jess her share to the take and then abandons her, leaving her confused and heartbroken.
Three years later, Nicky is hired by Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a Formula 1 team owner looking to gain an edge that will allow him to beat his rival, an Australian named McEwan, and claim the championship. The plan is that Rafael will supply Nicky with the necessary intel to allow him to pass himself off as a disgruntled engineer so that McEwan will buy equipment from him that he believes will give his racers the advantage when, in fact, it will be slowing them down instead. Though Nicky clashes with Owens (Gerald McRaney), Rafael's head of security, things are otherwise going according to plan until Nicky attends a party at which he is supposed to get into a fight with Rafael and pique McEwan's interest, but he's thrown off by the sudden appearance of Jess, who tells him that she's out of the con game and dating Rafael and asks Nicky to keep their past a secret as Rafael has no idea about it. Nicky agrees and manages to pull himself together enough to create a "scene" with Rafael that in turn gets him a meeting with McEwan, but he continues to be shaken by Jess' re-entry into his life and his attention begins drifting towards getting her back. With his attention divided, and his endgame having changed from "get the money and run" to "get the money and run with the girl," Nicky's carefully laid plan begins to spiral out of control and put both him and Jess in danger.
As written and directed by Ficarra and Requa, Focus is a fast-paced film that finds a nice balance between its romance and caper elements, and even manages to mix a bit of comedy in there as well (though I confess that I found some of the comedy, much of which comes courtesy of Nicky's friend and sometimes partner Farhad, played by Adrian Martinez, to be too crass for my personal tastes). Admittedly, it's a film that coasts in no small part on style and on the charm of its leads, but when a film is ultimately successful, perhaps it doesn't matter that much how it gets there, just that it gets there. Now entering his 20th year as a bona fide movie star, Smith remains a magnetic and engaging screen presence who, at his best, can sell just about anything. He's at his best in Focus, his portrayal of Nicky suave enough to make it believable that even after three years Jess would still be just a little obsessed with him, and imbued with just enough gravitas to sell both the notion that he's been at the game for a long time and that he's seen and experienced things that haunt him. In Smith's hands, Nicky is a man who is hardened and experienced but still vital, still capable of being delighted by the mechanics of a good con going right, and that's a large part of why the film itself works so well. Not a lot of stars can carry so much of a film on the strength of their personality - the role was originally supposed to be played by Ryan Gosling and then Ben Affleck, and I have a hard time picturing either of them pulling it nearly as well - but Smith can and he makes it look effortless.
As his on screen counterpart, Robbie, last seen in The Wolf of Wall Street, meets Smith note for note, taking on the "protege" role without allowing Jess to be reduced to nothing more than an accessory, the "little bit of sex" (to quote Sullivan's Travels) that makes a movie more marketable. This isn't to say that Jess as a character is anything revolutionary or that she isn't an archetype, just that Robbie manages to bring some personality to the portrayal that makes the dynamic between Jess and Nicky seem a bit more give-and-take than it might otherwise have been. Focus isn't a brilliant piece of work by any stretch of the imagination, but it's the sort of slick, purely entertaining film that feels like a relief after the end of the year onslaught of Oscar movies and the disposable schlock that inevitably peppers the first couple of months of every year.