Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is dining at a fancy restaurant when a beautiful stranger named Jess (Margot Robbie) sidles next to him, ostensibly to escape an unwanted admirer. They get to flirting and he brings her back to his hotel room. Things start to get intimate but then Jess' enraged gun-toting husband bursts in demanding retribution. However, Nicky instantly realizes they are running a scam because he happens to be a con artist too. Far from angry, he is impressed. Nicky takes Jess under his wing and schools her on picking pockets, scamming major money and the fine art of the long con. As Jess blossoms under his tutelage Nicky worries his feelings for her could throw him off his game and so decides to take drastic action.
Sexy scam artist caper films seem to return every two years or so in the decade since Ocean's Eleven (2001). Names and faces change but the stories remain essentially the same as does the style in which they are told. Set in a fantasy world of glamour and wealth the sleek cityscapes and luxurious locations are almost always matched with a cool retro soundtrack fusing vintage soul with acid jazz or electronica. These films trade on our innate suspicion of the über rich as a means to ease the vicarious pleasure we derive from watching stylish antiheroes pull off outrageous scams that would be pretty heinous if perpetrated against the poor – as they more often are in real life. As such the sub-genre puts a lot of stock in star power and filmmakers go out of their way to make the cast as glamorous as possible. In the case of Focus we have a decidedly dapper Will Smith paired with the undeniably stunning Margot Robbie. The chemistry between these two stars is the film's greatest asset.
Early on Nicky tells Jess: "If you get that focus, you can take whatever you want" thus outlining the central theme which, despite the attempt to extend it to a metaphor for relationships (with 'focus' a substitute for 'trust') remains fairly basic. Con artist caper films are all about the misdirect. The plot is structured around this theme. This goes all the way back to The Sting (1973). The first half of Focus plays like Pygmallion for con artists. We watch Nicky teach Jess how to scope an environment, read minds and analyse a situation to her advantage. It is mildly amusing if familiar and like others of its ilk unlikely to convince skeptics those that prey on the gullible are in any way cool. Co-writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa began their careers making animated cartoon shows for the Nickelodeon channel. From penning scripts for Cats & Dogs (2001) and Bad Santa (2003) the duo made the jump to directing with the Jim Carrey true crime comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris (2009) then made likeable rom-com Crazy Stupid Love (2011). More recently they paired Robbie with Tina Fey for the well-received Afghan war satire Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016). Here they pad a slight story with lots of glamour shots, slow-mo musical montages and romantic interludes but scatter too few thematic breadcrumbs to keep things compelling beyond the first half. Put simply: Will Smith and Margot Robbie are the entire movie. If you are not invested in their relationship then Focus will prove quite a slog.
After a genuinely tense and suspenseful sequence wherein BD Wong makes a vivid impression as an alternately sinister yet childlike gambling tycoon the plot abruptly dumps Jess by the wayside then jumps ahead three years. Whereupon we begin an entirely new plot. Racecar supremo Rodrigo Santoro and his bullish right-hand man Gerald McRaney hire Nicky to play a part in a high stakes tech swindle. All seems fine until Nicky discovers his employer's new girlfriend is none other than – surprise! - Jess. Focus is a great looking film, from the sparkling photography of D.P. Xavier Pérez Grobet to the exotic locations, Robbie's impeccable wardrobe to Smith's buff torso, and the final set of revelations are quite charming. Yet the film is overly enamoured with its own cleverness and proves there is only so much one can play these 'is it real or a con?' games before viewers lose patience.