This overproduced and oh-so-very-sleek tale, about a male and female con artist, asks the question, to quote writers-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, “In a world where trust is currency and love requires trust, how can two [con artists] ever fall in love?”
My first suggestion would be to check out Ernest Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” a 1932 comedy that asked and answered that exact question. But this is unfair since no one before or since has approached Lubitsch’s comic mastery.
What you don’t do though is let your focus drift from the very human question about relationships and people working together and perhaps falling in love to the nuts-and-bolts of sleight-of-hand, misdirection and deception. A documentary about pickpockets you don’t need.
The filmmakers even went to the trouble of hiring a “gentleman thief,” one Apollo Robbins, to conceive and choreograph the hidden maneuvers of the confidence trade. Too bad they didn’t hire a romance coach.
For the least interesting thing about “Focus” is its romance between leads Will Smith and Margot Robbie. There is more passion in the play-acting to distract a mark and rob him of his watch or wallet than in any of the bedroom activities between these two.
The same can be said about Ficarra & Requa though. They zero in so intently on the con games they’re playing with their audience — who’s telling the truth, who’s lying, who’s working with whom? — they neglect the human heart.
“Focus” is all shiny surfaces in hotel suites, skyboxes and three-star restaurants. If that weren’t distracting enough, the movie’s central proposition is that every character is dealing in duplicity and insincerity so it’s hard to get emotionally invested in their lives.
Smith’s Nicky and Robbie’s Jess have an extended “meet cute” where he, a seasoned pro of scamming, swiftly spots her as a gifted amateur. He lets the con play itself out to amuse himself. All the while the audience is in the dark about this situation until it’s over, a strong indication of things to come.
Mildly smitten, Nicky teaches Jess a few tricks, then takes off for the New Orleans Super Bowl where he intends to run teams of pickpockets through the many crowds. Jess shows up, begs to get in on the action — it turns out Nicky was expecting her — and she along with everyone else earns a nice share of a seven-figure payday.
Nick pulls off one more con, one in which Jess and the audience are again in the dark, then kicks her out. Love can play no role in a con man’s life.
By now you know appearances in this movie can be deceiving but he seems involved in a risky scheme involving the theft of computerized engine performance enhancers while she seems very attached to a handsome Spanish race car team owner (Rodrigo Santoro) who has hired Nicky.
Her sudden appearance throws Nicky off his game — briefly. He broods about her presence, dodges the nasty suspicions of his boss’ tenacious head of security (Gerald McRaney), then finds a way (or at least seems to) to have his cake and eat it too.
By the time the story moves to Argentina, of course, you too are suspicious of everything and everyone. Instead of focusing on the romance or even the con, you keep wondering: How are the filmmakers trying to fool me?
Who is really working for whom and against what? Why has Nicky’s right-hand man and resident clown Farhad (Adrian Martinez) shown up in town? Is Nicky really that into Jess — a woman he dumped unceremoniously three years ago — or is this another con?
One more question: Do you care?
For a while you’re not entirely sure what kind of a movie you’re watching — is it an update on “The Sting” or perhaps a darker movie? You worry about plot points that may be vital or simply loose ends. Such as why two guys carry over a million dollars in cash to a Super Bowl game.
Playing a man convinced he can fool anybody, Smith fools himself. Little of his natural charm or sense of humor comes into play here. He seems hamstrung by the role, gliding through scenes like a male model but ill at ease with anything requiring a twinkle in the eye or a romantic gesture.
Robbie is good looking, as her eye-catching performance a year ago in “The Wolf of Wall Street” demonstrated, but brings no spark to what passes for romance. Martinez as Nicky’s plus-size cohort and McRaney as the ruthless enforcer make stronger impressions in much less screen time.
The film is so unfocused that once you get to the end, you might play back a few scenes that seem to exist solely to mislead the audience rather than clarify character or advance the story.
Production values are first class to the point of profligacy. From New Orleans to Buenos Aires the story plays out on a grand scale with plenty of crowd extras for party, race car, football and street scenes where the con artists ply their trade.
That the film’s tiny romance gets lost in the crowd is little wonder.
Opens February 27, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Di Novi Pictures, Zaftig Films
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, Robert Taylor, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Dominic Fumusa
Directors/screenwriters: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Producer: Denise Di Novi
Executive producers: Charlie Gogolak, Stan Wlodkowski, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Xavier Grobet
Production designer: Elizabeth Mickle
Music: Nick Urata
Costume designer: Dayna Pink
Editor: Jan Kovac
R rating, 105 minutes