In theaters Friday, Feb. 27
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
It’s not easy to pull off a savvy heist flick.
For starters, it needs at least one fast-talking character as trustworthy as an Internet doctor. And it must feature an elaborate sting that requires multiple viewings from multiple angles, preferably in slow-mo. But get too meandering or sloppy, and your audience will feel emotionally swindled.
Focus doesn’t entirely succeed — but it has just enough aces up its sleeve to make it entertaining. Especially by post-Oscar hangover standards.
Will Smith is Nicky, a master con artist. The kind of guy so good at his craft, he instantaneously knows when he’s getting played. So when a beautiful woman (Margot Robbie) sits down next to him at a hotel bar and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend in order to ward off a creep, he’s on to her in a snap.
This novice is named Jess, and after getting caught in the act, she begs Nicky to teach her the trade. Though Nicky has every right to just steal her watch and walk away, he agrees to play mentor. (When you’re that gorgeous, desperation and flattery can be an irresistible combination.)
Behavior is unpredictable, Nicky intones. That’s why controlling a mark’s focus is a must. That false trust enables a pro to deceive and steal and cheat. You’ve seen Ocean’s Eleven more than 11 times. You know the drill.
These rules also serve as pickup lines, as the two soon hook up in a hotel room. The more often they romp between the sheets, the more stealth they become on the job. Alas, the fling is fleeting: Just moments after a massive windfall at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, Nicky abruptly leaves her in a limo. Three years later, he spots Jess sauntering into a party in a killer red dress — smack in the middle of a high-stakes scheme in Buenos Aires. Let the games begin!
Wow, that's a lot of exposition. And not surprisingly, the nimble caper stumbles a bit in the second half. Taking credit cards from unsuspecting drunk dudes at a rowdy bar is amusing; corrupting an international race car owner is overreaching. And the climactic payoff features one of those absurd scenes in which all the characters calmly outline their thought process, even as the villains wave guns. Good thing Nicky and Jess’ red-hot chemistry put Christian and Anastasia’s Red Room antics to shame . . . . right?
Fifty shades of wrong! (Sorry.) Though Robbie brings the same brand of Wolf of Wall Street naughty feistiness, Smith carries himself as if Nicky does mortician work on the side. What happened to charismatic Men in Black/Hitch Will Smith? That endearing smarminess is sorely missed here. (This is a comedy, after all. And his monotone delivery kills most of the jokes.)
But the couple will make you look when they work their sleight-of-hand magic, from lifting wallets to swiping jewelry. And one long con during the Super Bowl simply dazzles. (Bravo to the screenwriter who figured out how to use a classic Rolling Stones song to abet a bluff.) No matter that the gambit defies logic once you go back and mentally connect the dots.
Still, perhaps the film’s greatest trick is the one that happens offscreen. Hours after the end credits roll, it will completely disappear from your mind.