There are two ways of seeing “Focus”: as a slick, derivative con man movie starring a typically debonair Will Smith that channels the labyrinthine schemes and accompanying jubilance found in everything from “Ocean’s Eleven” to “Out of Sight” — or as the worst movie yet from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writer-director pair behind “I Love You Philip Morris” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”
It’s the latter perspective that makes “Focus” such a letdown for anyone intrigued by the pair’s other work. Despite its stylish execution, the movie sags into formula and shows little of the vulgar, edgy sensibilities that made this filmmaking pair worth following in the first place.
Ficarra and Requa first gained attention as the screenwriters behind “Bad Santa,” which, like “Focus,” revolves around the plight of a criminal defined by his routine. In their directorial debut “I Love You Philip Morris,” Jim Carrey played another memorable schemer seemingly addicted to using trickery to define his lifestyle. But whereas both of those characters possess maniacal, self-destructive personalities — yet miraculously wound up being lovable in the process — “Focus” sets its sights on the seemingly infallible Nicky (Smith), a suave con man who recruits newbie Jess (Margot Robbie) in an amusing opening scene after her attempt to swindle him goes awry. From there, Nicky takes Jess under his wing — and, after work hours, into his bedroom — to improve her criminal skills. With a lively soundtrack and vibrant imagery leading the way, “Focus” arrives at its first nifty set piece: Jess works alongside a close-knit team of thieving collaborators, wandering through a crowd and nabbing various watches and wallets while Nicky watches approvingly for above.
For a while, the fundamentally entertaining hook of Jess’ training session lends itself to a healthy dose of escapism. Though it’s encouraging to see Robbie deliver a more determined character than the scowling housewife she played in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the role is dispiritingly underwritten, explaining away her criminal motives with some vaguely defined rough upbringing. (The actress truly comes into her own as the sensitive survivor in Craig Zobel’s post-apocalyptic Sundance love triangle story “Z for Zachariah,” coming out later this year.) But Jess’ eagerness to hone her skill provide just enough of an excuse to set in motion her appealing chemistry with Smith, a far better foil for her needs than Leonard DiCaprio’s capitalist psycho in “Wolf.” From an early bit when he manhandles her to show her the ropes of the profession, the heat between them is palpable — which naturally leads to questions about who’s conning who, and whether or not any of the mutual attraction stems from a genuine place.
While “Focus” hinges on changing things up every few minutes with new surprises involving the pair’s schemes, its twisty path has a gimmicky quality easy to enjoy but also patently ridiculous. It’s fun to roll with the scams until it gets to the point where the movie has little else to offer up. The ruse reaches the heights of its charm around the halfway point, during a New Orleans scam at a football game that finds Nicky taking on an Asian gangster in a series of impossibly high bets. The absurdly prolonged con — which involves the number of times the word “woo” crops up in a Rolling Stones song, among other things — offers a loopy, exciting kick of the unexpected that Ficarra and Requa do better than any other American filmmakers working today. When the full extent of the scheme comes to bear, Jess can only muster, “You can’t tell me that’s 100% real.” But for our sake, it doesn’t matter.
Then “Focus” stumbles with an abrupt flash-forward three years, when a more experienced Jess once again crosses Nicky’s path in the midst of a scheme in Europe. While the two begin a tentative collaboration to scam Jess’ apparently wealthy boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), the developing plot lacks the humor or energy that carried it before. Flashes of irreverent dialogue (“You’re not splitting atoms! This isn’t fucking Cern!”) stand out in contrast to the otherwise mundane proceedings. While there are hints of screwball comedy material to the would-be couple’s warring agendas, “Focus” offers little more than a grab bag of surprise twists. It never loses the dazzling surface polish, but without trying to dig deeper, the movie strings us along in the hopes of something more, not unlike one of the cons at its center.
As a basic diversion, “Focus” certainly reflects the limited nature of Smith’s career of late — but what’s more dispiriting is that it features the same lack of inspiration from behind the camera. As with the directors’ “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” there’s a modicum of inventiveness to the narrative that suggests the presence of a canny sensibility designed to subvert audience expectations. But the biggest surprise of “Focus” after its clever opening is that so much of it feels like routine.
“Focus” opens nationwide on Friday.