Focus Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Published Feb 27, 2015There are a few things we've come to expect from movies in which people pull the rug out from under someone else using confidence scams. These include a smooth operator revealing some of their tricks of the trade, a big climactic con that may be too grand for even the best of the best to pull off and, most of all, enough plot twists to know that there's always room for another when we least expect it.
In the sleek and seductive Focus, Will Smith slips into the role of third-generation con man Nicky so effortlessly it's a wonder he's never played anyone quite like him before. At a bar one night he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), an amateur in his field who fails spectacularly in trying to bilk him out of some money. He reluctantly agrees to show her the ropes and determine if she has what it takes to succeed in the risky but lucrative business of separating people from their valuables.
Prior to an event in New Orleans that sure looks a lot like the Super Bowl but apparently wasn't legally allowed to be called the Super Bowl, Jess puts her new skills into practice by working with the crack team Nicky's assembled, including a stand-out role for Adrian Martinez as a big lug with an irresistibly filthy sense of humour. Of course, Jess and Nicky also inevitably climb into bed with each other, but they part ways expecting to never see each other again. That is, until their paths unexpectedly cross again in Buenos Aires three years later.
The first half of the film has a smoldering energy, fuelled by the natural chemistry between Smith and Robbie and the thrill of entering their world of deception and duplicity. This culminates in Nicky's escalating wagers with a businessman (BD Wong) at the big game, which pays off with a tremendous sight gag and brilliant use of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil." Once the action lands in Buenos Aires, however, for a job involving a race car driver and his secret fuel-burning formula, things get bogged down a little in exposition and shifting allegiances, but they never completely lose their verve.
The film was written and directed by the duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who bring their gift for pithy dialogue that they showcased in their screenplay for Bad Santa and the same preoccupation with hoodwinking that made their directorial debut, I Love You Phillip Morris, such a hidden gem. They're aware that part of the pleasure of this genre for the audience is trying to unravel the threads and figure out the unexpected way in which they will end up coming together. They land here on an ending that makes emotional sense, even as we're thinking back over scenes to make sure it all adds up. If we've been conned, though, it's a pretty good one.