The con men and women in Focus are bright, quick, jaunty folks who seem super-fun to hang out with, until they lift your wallet, copy your credit card and land you in false-charge purgatory for the next year or so. In real life, you would loathe these people, who operate like a cleaner version of Fagin’s orphans from Oliver Twist, only with better apparel and dental care. They travel around in packs nimbly thieving from the drunk and the careless, flipping wallets out of pockets with casual grace. They put false fronts on ATMs. They are the superheroes of graft.
The leader of this crew is smooth operator Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, who isn’t asked to do much here, just rely on his easygoing, appealing persona). Nicky runs into neophyte grifter Jess (Margot Robbie) in a hotel restaurant one night. Her play is weak, and he calls her on it. But because she is drop-dead gorgeous or because Nicky likes the idea of having a protégé or because — and this is the most likely reason — the filmmakers need a plot device to keep these two in the same frame, he starts teaching her the finer points of his profession. Soon he allows her to join his crew in New Orleans for a bout of high-end scamming.
Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa, I Love You Philip Morris), Focus is a shiny, stylish shell game of a film that, much like its protagonists, relies on breezy chatter, a good sense of humor and a lot of misdirection to succeed. A quick pace and a charismatic leading man go a long way toward preventing the audience from thinking too much about what’s happening or considering the ugly side of identity theft or the fact that they have far more in common with the faceless, hapless stooges Nicky robs than Nicky himself.
But listen, let’s not get bogged down in all this worry about fraud. Focus is a bauble, a diversion, based on flights of ridiculous fantasy. Would you believe two different guys would bring a million plus in cash to a football game? Can you at least go with the idea if one of them is Will Smith? Good. Because Focus requires that sort of flexible thinking.
Even the dizzy criminal world in which Nicky operates barely seems dangerous, until three years down the road, after he has abandoned Jess (he more or less dumped her at the side of the road in New Orleans, but at least he paid cash). The new scheme he signs on for involves a formula for making race cars faster, a sulky, rich Rodrigo Santoro and a cranky Gerald McRaney as his trigger-happy bodyguard. Nicky’s plans take a turn, however, when Jess shows up hanging all over the rich guy. So who exactly is running a scam on whom?
Nicky’s basic operating rule is that our brains can’t multitask, that we’re susceptible to distraction and easily lose sight of the bigger picture. Focus proves his point, its sleight of hand keeping you guessing for just long enough. You won’t really mind the fact that you’ve been conned.
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, B.D. Wong, Gerald McRaney, Robert Taylor.
Writer-directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 104 minutes. Language, some sexual content, brief violence. Playing at area theaters.