Focus (2015)

Posted by Joel Copling on February 26, 2015

Since the dawn of the medium, the con-man movie exists along the same wavelength as its either its audience or its characters, and "Focus" straddles this line throughout the third act. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's back up. This is a slick, fun exercise in con-job storytelling--not a high watermark of the subgenre as was 2003's "Matchstick Men" but solid nonetheless. It places the heft of our trust in characters it would likely be unwise to trust and follows through on the promise of a twisty narrative. It isn't exactly a movie that knows exactly what it is doing in every scene--the final homestretch is too wobbly for that--but the script by directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa still manages to do what it does with, well, confidence.

The cast, as it should be in such an effort, is game. Will Smith, who exudes confidence in every role that seems to be worth his time, is Nicky, a con man with tenure who people-watches with the air of someone who knows what these people are about and exactly how to play them. Margot Robbie, whose facial--shall we say?--symmetry is enough to belie the inner workings of her character's mind, is Jess, who drops herself into Nicky's world while playing hard-to-get for a man she robs. She seeks advice on how to be a criminal from Nicky, who cottons on to her act pretty much immediately and takes her in on a trial basis.

The trial goes relatively well. In the film's best scene by a considerable margin, the two attend a football game and strike up a bet with a fellow shark (played by an electric B.D. Wong). This sequence, which plays on Nicky's apparent gambling habits, is much the best way to observe process at work. It's a battle of wits to the end--or, as Nicky states the mantra, "Die by the lie." The particulars of the series of confidence schemes are ultimately more interesting than the answer to the riddle, but the screenwriters capitalize on efficiency here: Months after Jess's trial period ends, the two reconnect--he is hired to scheme the rival of a race-car entrepreneur, Garriga, played by Rodrigo Santoro, while she is the entrepreneur's girlfriend.

Of course, "Focus" is a movie about con men, so it's not all that simple, leading to a third act that doesn't entirely hold up. Character motivations and histories are clarified, but applying the triplet of major twists to what came before only reveals the weakness of the twists. Still, the actors are game to carrying out the film's brand of clever deceptiveness. Smith and Robbie are a terrific pair, playing with the complexities of scheming and conning almost entirely with their eyes, while Gerald McRaney offers solid support as the grizzled head of Garriga's security. Some threads are in the wind by the final shot of the film, but "Focus" is, well, focused on having a good time before the gig is up.

Film Information

Will Smith (Nicky), Margot Robbie (Jess), Rodrigo Santoro (Garriga), Gerald McRaney (Owens), Adrian Martinez (Farhad), BD Wong (Liyuan), Robert Taylor (McEwen).

Directed and written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.

Rated R (language, sexual content, brief violence).

104 minutes.

Released on February 27, 2015.