Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez, BD Wong and Gerald McRaney. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Ah. The Art of the Con.
I would’ve said “The Con Is On” but that’s the tagline for a much better (and understated) movie, “Bowfinger (I need to pop that into my player again). Without delving too much into Hollywood History the older con artist with the younger con artist (regardless of sex) has been going on longer than I’ve been alive. According to my memory the last attempt at the male/female con artist rom-com (such as this is) was “Duplicity” starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Paul Giamatti, and Tom Wilkinson and which was a better movie. The pinnacle in my opinion would be the John McTiernan remake of “The Thomas Crowne Affair” with Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, and Denis Leary (although Russo was not a con artist in training so much as an insurance fraud investigator). Here’s the rundown:
Enter Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), a smooth-as-silk master con/ sociological geek who’s past is dubious at best but be certain he’s been in the game longer than he knew it was a game. He’s the kind of guy who can look you straight in the eyes while he has someone steal your wallet, get your information, and return your wallet without you knowing. One night up-and-comer Jess (Robbie) tries luring him into the “significant other catching you in the act” scheme (see also: “Derailed”). Nicky calls her out on it and leaves. Jess hunts Nicky down in order to learn the ways of the con and proves that she is not just eye-candy but a worthy addition to his team. Their big con comes during a championship football game where we learn of Nicky’s fatal flaw: gambling. After losing a massive amount and winning it back (from BD Wong) they walk away with a few cool million. Nicky gives Jess $80,000 and sends her on her way, disappearing forever. Or so it seems…
Cut to 3 years later in Buenos Aires. Nicky is hired by the head of a racing team to sell a less-than-effective engine design that will give him half-second lead per lap. Suspicious of the con artist is his assistant (Gerald McRaney) who is keeping a close eye on Nicky. Thrown into the mix yet again is Jess who made her way to the track and is considered a “race skank.” Nicky tries to make amends with Jess while scheming against the team he’s selling the “defective” design to while dancing around McRaney and the guy who hired him. However, is it all just a con within a con?
There are things the movie does well and points where you feel someone interjected or just lost sight of the original idea entirely. What works for the film is Nicky detailing how the con is mastered in such a fluid fashion that it’s like watching a magic trick unfold before your eyes. He’s able to spit out psychological/sociological perspectives on nuance and mannerisms that makes you wonder if there’s a college course on this stuff (probably). Robbie proves that she can be smart and beautiful, transcending the source material in a way that almost begs for a spin-off starring her alone. They do work well together.
The letdown of the film is that it feels that the traits of the characters were ditched to rush into a rom-com to make a quick buck. After the setups and the tryout and the championship it becomes Will Smith emoting for an hour and trying to get Robbie back. There’s almost no scene in which Smith is crying, even when he’s supposedly happy being with Robbie. What?!? Did he feel like he was selling his soul to do this film? Does he have a soul left after “After Earth?” And there’s a Gerald McRaney reveal/plot twist that makes you scratch your head as to “Why?” but you’ll find that out should you choose to check it out.
In the end “Focus” is no better nor worse than most other movies. Robbie doesn’t disappoint but Smith does a little. It’s a rainy-day, “nothin’ better on cable”-type movie. For those interested in the male/female con dynamic I suggest the aforementioned “Duplicity” or “Thomas Crowne Affair” remake (or maybe even the original). For those just wanting a different con movie I also suggest “9 Queens,” a foreign film involving a con over some misprinted stamps.
My grade: B-