With a lighthearted caper movie, the formula is easy to understand if not execute. It's all about conning the viewer as effectively as the on-screen marks while camouflaging enough of the unavoidable plot holes to make things hold up on a second viewing. Although Focus, a comedy/thriller that plays to star Will Smith's strengths, succeeds at the former, it's on thin ice with the latter. The movie is mostly entertaining, although there are times when the pacing flags, but several scenes (one in particular) are designed for in-the-moment sleight-of-hand without being overly concerned about whether they'll make any sense in retrospect.
If the granddaddy of movies in this genre is the Redford/Newman Oscar winner, The Sting, then Focus is a distant cousin several times removed. It does enough things right to earn a recommendation, but there are misfires aplenty for those who care to look for them. The chemistry between Smith and co-star Margot Robbie (who will forever be remembered for her revealing turn in Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street) is strong enough to paper over their underdeveloped romance but there are a couple of monologues that function as exposition dumps (including one near the very end). The third-act twist (and house rules specify that caper movies must all have these) is unpredictable but also borders on nonsensical if one bothers to sit down and think about it. The movie is at its most fun when it stays small and light. One of the best sequences is a New Orleans street scene that turns pickpocketing into ballet.
Focus takes us into the world of master con artist Nicky (Smith), a slick operator who boasts unparalleled skills, relentless focus, and possibly a gambling problem. Although he sometimes works alone, he has assembled a team of 30-odd associates whose job is to labor in concert to steal as much as quickly and surreptitiously as possible. Nicky's not interested in a big score; volume derives income. Nicky's new apprentice, Jess (Robbie), is a looker with raw capabilities that Nicky wants to refine. In the process, he falls for her. Or does he? And how does she feel about him? Is he a beloved mentor or a mark? Is she an innocent or a femme fatale? In some ways, the questions are more interesting than the answers.
The movie travels from New York City to New Orleans to Buenos Aries with the stakes becoming higher with each stop. The second half of the film doesn't work as well as the first half, but it's got a snarling Gerald McRaney (the veteran TV star who may still be best known for starring roles in "Major Dad" and "Simon & Simon") to provide an enjoyable diversion.
Focus underscores that Smith is at his best in movies with this tone: a little flippant but with darker undercurrents. It's not a straightforward comedy but there are some funny moments. Smith is in desperate need of a hit; it has been about seven years since he made a legitimate box office splash. It's perhaps no surprise that Nicky owes more than a passing debt to the title character of Hitch, one of Smith's best-liked films. It's unfortunate that co-directors/screenwriters Glenn Ficarra & John Requa couldn't do a better job fleshing out the interaction between Smith and Robbie, although the revolving door of actors attached to the project could have something to do with that.
As so-called "refrigerator films" go, this one doesn't boast the smartest of scripts but it's clever enough to offer a few surprises and the likeability factor for the protagonists is high. The film's tone, like its pacing, is uneven, but that's not a major drawback. It doesn't overstay its welcome although it comes perilously close during a lackluster denouement. Focus is uncommonly good for a February release (damning with faint praise?) but may not clear the bar of being worthy of a trip through snow and ice to reach the multiplex. Star power, actor chemistry, and caper movie twists make for a nice diversion but not much more.
© 2015 James Berardinelli