Will Smith’s con movie Focus breaks no new ground as a con movie, but I don’t think anyone expected it to. It’s not bad, as they go; a by-the-numbers execution might be unsatisfying to caper movie fans, but wider audiences don’t seem to mind. Still, what it lacks in originality it makes up for in style, and style can go a long way.
So of course we’ve got the con man, Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), and we’ve got the ingenue, Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). She tries to pull a grift on him, which he sees coming a mile away. He gives her some tips and sends her packing.
Jess catches up with Nicky in New Orleans in the runup to a big football game. Marks are streaming in from all over the country, and Nicky’s crew is set up to run a high-volume business in pickpocketing, credit-card skimming, and all other manner of small-time cons. The long con where everybody gets rich and retires, he explains to her, is something of a myth; this is all about quantity. After they wrap up, he blows her off again.
Years later, they meet again in Buenos Aires. Nicky sets up a scam for Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the owner of an F1 team that has developed a technical MacGuffin putting them in contention for the lead. His job is to play a disgruntled Garriga engineer and sell a fake version to the only other serious contender, but then he sees Jess as Garriga’s new arm candy.
The con is pretty thin, compared to more satisfying entries in the genre. Fans will see the dramatic blowoff twist coming from the first act, though it seemed to play effectively for the audience in the screening I saw. That said, the movie is really more about setting up this dance between Nicky and Jess. Nicky was convinced he had to be hard and keep nobody close in order to succeed as a con man — a person you care about is a weakness that can be exploited — but after New Orleans he’s reconsidering that stance. Meanwhile, Jess is keeping him at arm’s length, saying she’s happy with Garriga.
And this dance plays out on a particularly well-dressed stage with a particularly well-dressed cast. Smith and Robbie look wonderful, and the scenes look wonderful around them. Writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa play the story out at a neat clip, setting it to a hip needle-drop soundtrack. Cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet makes even the side streets of Buenos Aires seem to shine, even while he uses the license the script affords him to play around with arty uses of, yes, focus.
It may be an inch deep, but Focus makes that inch look fabulous. If you go in wanting a great con, you’ll be sorely disappointed, but if you just want to bask in the pretty, pretty glow, you’re all set.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.