The best con artist movies - The Grifters, The Sting, Matchstick Men, David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games - bamboozle the mark and the audience at the same time. You're left in awed disbelief. How'd they do that? (And how did the word bamboozle come into being, anyway?)
Focus, a glossy cruise down Scammery Road, aspires to the above-mentioned company. It certainly struts the strut. But for all the combustible chemistry of its two leads - Will Smith and Margot Robbie - the movie pulls off the worst kind of con: the one that disappoints.
Even if you're willing to forgive its sinkhole plotholes and farthest-fetched conceits, the film - from cowriters/co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa - ultimately makes no sense. It even gets the number of "woo-woo's" shouted out in the chorus of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" wrong - 124, not the 155 that Smith's Nicky Spurgeon says the song has when he's implausibly explaining how he swindled a high roller out of a couple of million dollars at the Super Bowl. (Something to do with the power of suggestion and subliminal messages. Sure.)
When we meet Nicky, whose nickname turns out to be "Mellow" (although when we learn its origins, even that doesn't make sense - it should be "Mallow"), he's on the phone, trying to get a reservation at a tony New York dining spot. Cut to said boîte, where a beautiful blonde, harassed by a drunk at the bar, asks whether she can sit at Nicky's table. He's eating alone and looks perfectly content. She's Jess and looks perfect. Robbie, the va-va-voomy Australian who played Leonardo DiCaprio's trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, has the whitest teeth this side of a Zadie Smith novel. She's bedazzling, and as Focus shifts into gear and she becomes mentee to Smith's mentor, even Nicky, who should know better, is bedazzled.
Smith, with a wily gleam in his eye and a silky swagger to his gait, shows some of the movie-star wattage that's been missing from his recent pics. He charms. As Nicky, he orchestrates a team of hustlers and thieves, moving like a well-oiled machine, picking pockets, stealing watches, lifting wallets and ATM PIN codes. It's the only kind of living he knows. Pay attention when he tells Jess about his father, his granddad, and the "Toledo Panic Button" - a last-ditch con. They may take shortcuts when they shouldn't, but Ficarra and Requa stick to Screenwriting 101 basics: Plant a premise early, then bring it back in the third act.
Focus moves from New York to New Orleans to Buenos Aires, from big con to bigger con to a confidence trick of epic proportions involving secret race car engine formulas, computer passwords, an elaborately staged auto accident, and Robbie's Jess sneaking around a hotel suite, then climbing out onto the balcony to escape discovery. She's not wearing much. She doesn't have to.
Like a magician who has you looking one way when all the busy stuff is happening somewhere else, the filmmakers keep the camera on their female lead. Call it misdirection.
Then they throw Robbie and Smith together in bed for some more misdirection. They make a handsome couple.
And have we mentioned? They make no sense.
Focus ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. With Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sex, violence, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText