In the book The Big Con, David Maurer writes, “Confidence men are the elite of the underworld.” That’s true of Nicky (Will Smith) in the con-man/rom-com Focus. Nicky is the perfect con-man – his quick wit, slight of hand, supremely confident, and his elaborate schemes have put him on top of the con game. Nicky falls for a young grifter named Jess (Margot Robbie) after she joins his team for a big score at the Super Bowl.
After their partnership ends abruptly, Nicky and Jess reunite unexpectedly (three years later) in Buenos Aries when Nicky sets his sights on a new mark – billionaire race car owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a man Jess is romantically linked to.
Despite what the trailers show, Focus is not a film about the criminology of con men. It’s not a film about the underworld. And it’s not a film about trappings of greed or power. I wish I could say it’s even about the cons they successfully pull of in the film. It’s not. The “crime” in the film is decoration for the Nicky-meets-Jess love story that dominates 70% of the story. Focus is a rom-com, dipped in a little organized crime, and wrapped in another layer of comedy. It actually has more comedy than it has crime capers.
The first half of the film is Jess getting a crash course in Confidence Man 101 by Nicky. It serves as the device to teach the audience how the confidence game works. The only problem is Nicky seems to be the only con man in the group. The rest of group members do everything from stealing credit card, making fake ATMs, and pickpocket a lot of really expensive watches. They don’t do any actual cons.
The second half of the film is Nicky being head-over-heels for Jess and letting it get in the way of the con he’s running. The second half should be revving up to its big finish, instead it sputters to a disappointing halt. The end is packed with a number of crime movie clichés and is overstuffed with needless “gotcha” moments. It all adds up to an ending that misses its mark by a wide margin.
With that said, Will Smith and Margot Robbie’s chemistry save this movie. The two leads are electric together. Smith has been doing this for a long time but Robbie, a relative newcomer, matches Smiths’ energy, charisma, and charm at every turn. Whatever “it” is, it’s clear Robbie has it. You know what’s a bigger surprise than finding out MTV’s Pimp My Ride was fake? Smith and Robbie being a great comedic duo. They have no business being this funny together. They’re comedy single-handedly kept the movie afloat.
Both leads bring their fastball during a scene where Nicky gets into some high stakes gambling with wealthy man at the Super Bowl. It’s easily the best scene in the movie and the only scene that showcases both actors strengths while giving insight into the underworld they’re mixed up in. Smith reminds everyone how he earned the nickname “Mr. July” and Robbie puts everyone on notice that’s she’s more than just a pretty face. I’m eager to see if the two stars and recreate this magic for Warner Bros Suicide Squad.
Even with the flat second half and an ending that doesn’t quite stick the landing, Will Smith and Margot Robbie’s performances make Focus a film worth seeing.