Despite a star turn by Margot Robbie, ‘Focus’ is let down by a middling Will Smith, and doesn’t seem to quite come off as either a crime caper or a romantic comedy. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros)

Many Sleights of Hand, but No Focus in This Heist Flick


MARCH 05, 2015

Sleights of hand requiring the use of complicated plot points and red herrings come naturally for Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directing and writing masterminds behind box-office hits like "I Love You Phillip Morris" and "Crazy, Stupid, Love." There's every reason to expect the same from the two with their latest effort, "Focus," starring Will Smith as Nicky Spurgeon, a veteran New Orleans con man whose dress and manners is as sharp as his eye for a hustle in the city's Bourbon Street district or its horse races.

With the Super Bowl in town, Nicky goes on pickpocketing spree, swindling and emptying out the credit cards of unsuspecting revelers packing the city, with a little help from his band of thieves. The smooth, jaunty Nicky is soon stopped in his tracks by Jess Barrett (Margo Robbie), a striking blonde whose looks go a long way in bolstering her natural talents as a con artist.

Nicky takes to the newcomer and brings her under his wing to teach her the tricks of the trade, culminating in a hustle that shows how their trade leaves little to chance. Soon he finds himself falling for her -- a violation of his mentor's hard and fast rule against getting too close to other con artists, prompting Nicky to leave Jess.

Three years later, Nicky makes his way to Buenos Aires for his biggest score yet, as he sets out to hustle an F1 engineer, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro, who previously worked with Ficarra and Requa in "Phillip Morris"). But Nicky gets more than he bargains for when he runs into Jess, now a worldly femme fatale, forcing him to resort to every trick in the book.

Ficarra and Requa make the most of Smith's chemistry with Robbie, an interaction that cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet deftly capture in the cool sophistication of a Buenos Aires bar or the more intimate setting of an al fresco lunch, as well as New Orleans' more casual and boisterous atmosphere. While the glamour and charm of the leads gives life to "Focus" and engages the audience, the movie also seemed to leave Smith in a bind. Best known as a slick ladies' man in the two "Bad Boys" movies or "Hitch," Smith as Nicky seems to be torn between using his wit to sweep Jess off her feet or to blinker the targets of his hustles. His listless delivery, a marked change from his earlier movies, also renders the humor in "Focus" flat, despite the obvious sexual innuendoes and double entendres. As such, the movie doesn't seem to quite come off as either a crime caper or a romantic comedy.

Robbie, though, is a standout. Glamorous, quirky and vivacious, her transformation from a wide-eyed rookie hustler eager to learn, into a seasoned, world-wise femme fatale is one of the movie's highlights. Vivid in her red dress and sultry sensuality, her turn as Jess further affirms the critical acclaim that she garnered for her role as Naomi Lapaglia in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." Adrian Martinez's turn as Nicky's accomplice Farhad also helps bail out "Focus," with the offhanded slacker humor that he brings to the scams giving the movie a much-needed dose of life.

But like a spider caught in its own web, "Focus" seems to get lost in the interminable and intertwined sleights of hand, both verbal and literal, that its protagonist indulge in. While Ficarra and Requa seem to urge the audience to read between the lines or watch the scams closely, it's not too much of a stretch to say that the movie fails to live up to its title.

The Peak Focus

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro and Adrian Martinez

Running time: 104 minutes

English with Indonesian subtitles