It could be said that for over one hundred years, the movies have proven to be the biggest artistic con game going. The entire artform relies on manipulating the viewer into feeling real emotion, by engaging them with stories that are nevertheless built out of pure artifice. But of course, when it works, we’re able to suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride, and the masters of the form are skilled at hiding all the strings involved in carrying along an audience. For example, last fall’s “Gone Girl” showed how David Fincher could bring together a high wattage cast and use his extensive technical skills to make an utterly unbelievable and ridiculous piece of pulp, a nonetheless engaging, highly entertaining work of cinema. And writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy Stupid Love,” “I Love You Phillip Morris“) use the same playbook and bring their A-game to “Focus,” a no less preposterous, yet just as accomplished a popcorn movie as Fincher’s thriller.
Will Smith plays Nicky, a veteran con man who fronts a multi-faceted operation of graft, that includes everything from straight robbery to gray market dealings. He knows every trick in the book, can anticipate three moves ahead before they happen, and never breaks a sweat. But if he’s got a weakness, it’s a soft heart and a thing for beautiful women. Enter Jess (Margot Robbie), a newcomer to the business who wants to learn from the legendary Nicky. He reluctantly takes her under his wing, but not only does she prove to be a quick study, the romantic chemistry between them begins to spark, and soon Jess becomes one of the regular players in Nicky’s network of con artists. But after an elaborate job in New Orleans in which the thieving team winds up with millions, Nicky gives Jess her share and coldly dumps her. “There’s no room for heart in this game, it’ll get you killed,” Nicky once warned Jess, but she wasn’t prepared to learn that lesson the hard way, and it leaves her shattered. Fast forward three years and Nicky is in Buenos Aires working a new gig on the racing circuit, only to discover that Jess is hanging off the arm of his client. That pesky heart starts kicking back into gear, and Nicky has to try and keep one eye on his latest con, while figuring out how to win Jess back.
To say much more would be to ruin the fun, but make no mistake, “Focus” will give you a terrific time in the moment. And that’s largely due to Smith and Robbie, who are exactly the kind of magnetic, beautiful, Hollywood star leads you want for this kind of movie. They play every twisty turn of the plot, no matter how far fetched, with a straight-faced devotion, and like any good grifter, they can sell it. Sure, this isn’t Shakespeare, and three-quarters of their job here is looking good (which they do fabulously, thanks to costume designer Dayna Pink), but each time the movie makes the next leap of faith narratively, Smith and Robbie jump through the hoops with a breezy, light touch. And around them is solid support from character actors reliably doing their thing. Brennan Brown is a nice surprise as Nicky’s deadpan longtime right hand man, Gerald McRaney is delightfully growly and grumpy in a key role, and BD Wong turns up and pivots his performance in a key sequence toward the flamboyantly outlandish, but keeps it pitched in just the right register. “Focus” only works if the balance of ingredients is right, and from the cast, Ficarra and Requa get everything they need.
And the directors don’t slouch either, upping their skills, for what is easily the best shot movie of their career. Every frame of “Focus” looks fantastic, with cinematographer Xavier Grobet (“Looking,” “Nacho Libre“) making a helluva impression. For a film that’s all about distracting marks with flash, and then going for their pocket when they’re looking somewhere else, “Focus” sparkles from shot to shot, and in a sense keeps the audience dazzled and occupied away from the clunkier machinations of the plot. Meanwhile, Ficarra and Requa, who have mostly done comedies in the past, use the opportunity to stretch their wings with this genre flick, particularly in two sequences which play out like mini-movies. The first is a crucial, extended scene at a football game, which sees the stakes for Nicky rising with each moment, as a trio of characters bounce off one another, leaving the audience to figure out who is ahead of who. It leads to a revel so absurd that it threatens to take viewers out of the movie. However, the skill with which it’s pulled off allows a pass to be granted because it’s just that enjoyable. Meanwhile, later in the movie, the set-up of a car crash — which would be a quick side scene for any other filmmaker — is almost a standalone short here, as the movie pulls away from Nicky and Jess entirely for the first time, and spends a few minutes with a low-level henchman as he prepares for the task at hand, before he literally comes speeding back into the main storyline. These are two nifty, and slickly executed set pieces, highlighting both character and action, and if Marvel are looking for some filmmakers for their growing slate of movies, they need to give these guys a call.
And yet for all the technical and creative verve, “Focus” is still nothing more than a cinematic bauble. Even if “Gone Girl” was silly, Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn used the genre trappings to weave in more significant thematic concerns and undercurrents. There’s no such texture here, making the film not even substantive enough to be digestible, and more akin to watching the fizz bubble over in a glass from an expensive bottle of champagne. It’s that innocuous, and yet, if you’re at a party where champagne is being poured out in great quantities, you’re likely not too worried about spillage or nutritional value. You just want to take a drink. So feel free to imbibe from “Focus,” because you’ll get that pleasant, warm, blurry feeling of glossy, movie star-fueled drunkenness, but without the hangover. And all you’ll remember is that you had a good time, and for the filmmakers, that was likely the humble bar they wanted to hit in the first place. And it’s no sleight of hand that they manage to do so. [B-]