If you like Will Smith, you’ll enjoy his cool con charm in “Focus.”
The film loses focus in the design of the con.
The crime dramedy is more of a love story than high-stakes con tale.
There are two key elements to making a movie about a major con work: the players have to be cool and the con complicated.
“Focus” — the tale of the coolest con-man this side of Robert Redford, as played by Will Smith — meets the first criteria with ease. Smith has enough natural charm he could talk the spots off a Dalmatian.
His suave, cool-headed approach is needed since his character, Nicky, runs a massive organization of con artists who swoop down on major events and pick the public clean. In this case, it’s a major football game being held at the Superdome in New Orleans.
While he’s piling up the stolen wealth, Nicky meets a novice con artist, Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). He agrees to mentor the stunning blond on the subtle tricks of the trade. It’s a relationship that works as long as the sexual tension doesn’t kill them first.
Their big score in the Big Easy gives way to Nicky’s next scam, which involves the international racing community. At the same time he’s trying to pull off the hustle, Nicky is dealing with the mixed emotions he feels for Jess. Their relationship didn’t end on the best of terms in New Orleans.
Where “Focus” loses focus is in the design of the con.
In great movies with complicated plots of deceit — “The Sting,” “Ocean’s Eleven” — there is one long con that twists and turns throughout the film to the point it’s almost impossible to figure out where the story is going. It’s one, long smooth ride.
The script for “Focus,” by writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, starts and stops for the emotional elements. But that ends up making the con job disjointed.
The best way to play out this kind of tale is to go full throttle from start to finish. Any change of direction should be strictly reserved for the con and not the construct of the story.
When the story gets back on track, Smith’s smooth approach — coupled with the smoldering stylings of Robbie — gives “Focus” an odd combination of coolness and heat. The pair work well together and that helps keep the movie together.
Ficarra and Requa have designed “Focus” to be more of a love story than high-stakes con tale. That’s one reason most of Nicky’s crew — except for the quirky Farhad (Adrian Martinez) — are little more than background players. The concept of con men running such large organizations should have been played out more.
At least the writers play fair when it comes to the cons. They are very careful to spell out exactly how the marks are being manipulated — including a massively complicated effort used on the character played by B.D. Wong — so that the audience doesn’t feel cheated. It might seem a little absurd, but at least it is logical.
It just would have made for a tighter tale of sneaky larceny had the story been one long scam. In this case, two cons don’t equal one major flim flam. The good thing its that it’s not quite so noticeable because Smith and Robbie bring so much to the film.