“Focus” Movie Review

     Writing and directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s latest film, “Focus”, is one that decides early on it is best to let the audience in on the main character’s line of work by spending the majority of the first act explaining exactly what he does and how he does it.  Perhaps reminding of the early scenes in “Casino” and more recently “Now You See Me”, the script initially uses a chance meeting between a con man, Nicky (Will Smith), and a would be con woman, Jess (Margot Robbie), which leads them to begin a business relationship and thus the necessary grand tour of the operation.  In this case, the operation being a full fledged racket centered on every kind of thievery imaginable.  This is where the film’s slight of hand is basically given away, so as to allow the audience to be fully briefed on the ins and outs of credit card fraud, pickpocketing, identity theft, keystroking and password theft, and what ever else these characters can think of to add to their multimillion dollar operation.

     The beginning scenes allow our two leads to become acquainted in a way which at first appears to be on a mainly physical level.  Margot Robbie, you may recall, stole scenes from Leo DiCaprio in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” with the kind of screen presence some may end up comparing to a young Marilyn Monroe. Her good looks and charm appear to be the perfect fit for this film as well, since her character has to be convincing and/or distracting to those she is looking to ultimately steal from.  When Jess first meets Nicky, she comes on to him in a not so subtle way that leads to the two of them making their way to her hotel room.  In what we are told is the oldest con in the book, a would be husband barges into the room as Jess and Nicky are sprawled on the bed.  Of course, unbeknownst to Jess, Nicky is a con man as well and immediately begins picking apart their scheme as if he was the one who invented it.

     Still, Nicky sees something in Jess and decides to offer her a position within his organization.  This is where we are given a tour and explanation, along with Jess, as to how the organization operates. From the perspective of an outsider looking in, it is pretty impressive. The office looks like that of a Silicon Valley tech firm crossed with the counting room in a mob run Vegas casino.  High end computer hardware with sophisticated programs are stealing and selling credit card numbers, social security numbers, and pin numbers to cash hungry buyers all over the world.  Tables full of expensive stolen jewelry, watches, and still in the box electronics occupy another area, while others are busy counting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, organizing the money into $10,000 increments.  It’s a sight to see, and Jess wastes no time in telling Nicky she wants in.

     After she proves her worth in a series of slickly edited pick pocket set ups on the streets of New Orleans, the group has planned what appears to be a number of heists during Super Bowl weekend in the city.  This sets up what is probably the single best set piece in the film, in which Nicky and Jess find themselves pitted against a reckless gambler with deep pockets who is seated beside them in a Louisiana Superdome luxury suite during the big game.  As we see earlier in the film, Nicky seems to have a bit of a gambling problem, but as the head of his very own organized crime syndicate,  he can simply tell someone in the counting room to toss him a “dime” when he loses big at the track.  When he goes head to head with Liyuan (BD Wong) in the luxury suite, the bets begin with a couple dollars over which team will be assessed the next penalty, but then get way out of hand when pride begins to take over the egos of both men.  Ficarra and Requa both expertly write and then pull off this sequence with an astounding amount of tension and, at times, laughter.  Their script, in fact, moves briskly to this point with snappy dialogue and some nifty character development, but then in one swift stroke, it falters.

     When we are hit with the “3 Years Later” title card about half way through, the crew is on to a new heist in Buenos Aires where Nicky, who abruptly ends his relationship with Jess after the previous job, somehow finds himself reunited with her as he begins a con on a group of wealthy race car team owners.  What he intends on doing as far as the con really isn’t important to the plot anymore, as the focus now seems to be on the on again off again relationship between Nicky and Jess, a decision by the filmmakers that severely detracts from the cool factor the story had going for it in the previous two acts.  Instead of continuing to delve into the high tech world of cybercrime, we are left with a series of back and forth double crosses between a group of people who we already know lie and cheat for a living.  As an audience, you know at some point there will be a reveal amongst those we see on screen most often, so the surprises, when they come, seem to limp on screen without the sorely needed bravado that would make them impactful to the story.

     What “Focus” relies on most is the plethora of colorful characters the filmmakers have created in order to bring their criminal world to life.  Will Smith is as confident as ever and seems to thrive in these types of roles as his turn in “Hitch” immediately came to mind and left his 2013 film “After Earth”  as an afterthought.  Margot Robbie proves to be leading lady material and will likely continue to flourish in the right films.  Gerald McRaney as an overly angry number two to a would be con target provides plenty to the film’s clunky second half and Nicky’s sidekick, Farhad, played by Adrian Martinez, gets the biggest laughs of the film.  In similar fashion to their own “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, Ficarra and Requa have several of these characters dig themselves into such a deep hole, that even a television series about them would likely take several seasons to properly get them out.  With the constraints of a feature film running time, “Focus” isn’t really able to give a proper resolution to its main players, resulting in the feeling the audience is being cheated out of something too. GRADE: C