Toward the beginning of Focus, seasoned con artist Nicky (Will Smith) explains the essentials of his trade to admiring wannabe Jess (Margot Robbie). To deceive people, he says, you must control their focus, grabbing their attention with smoke and mirrors as you reach craftily for your true goal.
That's also a pretty good explanation of what skilled screenwriters do — and particularly of what writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa set out to do with Focus. While the trailers may make the film look like a star vehicle for a preening Smith, it's really more of a showcase for the talents behind Bad Santa and Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Focus is an elaborate attempted con on the audience, offering slick, shiny misdirections at every turn. Trying to guess Requa and Ficarra's next move keeps us focused on the screen. If the movie nonetheless leaves us feeling unsatisfied, that's because the characters, reduced to flies in the writers' tangled web, never quite give us a reason to care.
Nicky is introduced to us (and Jess) as a James Bond of the con. He's a third-generation deceiver who knows his fine fabrics and wines and runs a world-class team of pickpockets, card sharks and identity thieves. Watching his crew sweep into New Orleans on Super Bowl weekend and vacuum cash and jewelry from unsuspecting tourists is great fun. As Nicky educates Jess, whom he's taken on as his "intern," we learn plenty about subterfuge and sleight of hand, too.
But the script doesn't keep us on that inside track for long — and, like Jess, we learn that it's never wise to take what Nicky says at face value. After a few surprises, some requiring hefty suspension of disbelief, our hero and heroine meet again in Buenos Aires, in the world of high-stakes racing. But now who's conning whom?
This caper tale doubles as a love story that never quite comes into focus. When Smith and Robbie are sitting in swanky hotel bars, dressed to the nines and engaging in sexy banter, they don't lack for chemistry. But it's a surface affair, much like the con, and a believable deeper connection never manifests.
Jess' character is sketched in broad strokes — a hard-luck kid who looks like a model and talks like a brassy diner waitress — and Robbie makes her an amusing cartoon. Nicky is more of a cipher. Smith dials back his charm; despite being presented as the Awesomest Trickster Ever, Nicky is rarely exuberant or self-congratulatory. When he's supposed to be love-struck, he seems downright dour.
Because several plot twists depend on our not knowing how Nicky actually feels about anything, however, we don't feel much for him when he seems down in the dumps. And this lack of deeper engagement eventually extends to the whole film.
Focus is that rare movie that commands our attention throughout, yet it leaves us hard-pressed to remember much about it besides sleek urban montages and textbook scriptwriting tricks. It's full of colorful supporting characters played by skilled actors like B.D. Wong and Gerald McRaney. But Tarantino and his ilk have set a high bar for "colorful crime-world supporting characters" — and these have a hollowness to them, like nifty conceptions that never left the page.
Focus is a decent diversion that could have been more. Requa and Ficarra seem to be aiming for Martin McDonagh's territory: a darkly funny, self-aware crime flick with a genuine heart. But they're so focused on demonstrating their own clever scam tactics that they never get there.