By Todd Perkins, Staff Movie Reviewer
There are clear ideas of what a movie about con artists will entail. Films like “The Sting”, “The Grifters”, and “Matchstick Men” all showcase the shady lives of hustlers in ways that make them likeable, sympathetic, and relatable despite the fact that they make their living cheating bystanders out of their own money. Will Smith’s new starring vehicle “Focus” may not introduce any new angles or plot twists in this growing sub-genre, but what makes this new film so refreshing is that it is not trying to con viewers with double crosses or surprise revelations but rather relies on its charm to win over its audience.
Smith plays Nicky, a veteran pro who takes young, promising con artist Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing after he becomes one of her marks for a sleazy, low-level hustle.
Together they make a successful team, and eventually a romantic couple, but things take a sudden and dramatic turn after Nicky makes a huge gamble with their recent score of 1.2 million dollar against a wealthy gambler called Liyuan (B.D. Wong). Three years later, Nicky and Jess find themselves entangled in a scheme involving a powerful race car owner (Rodrigo Santoro), his trusted advisor (Gerald McRaney), and other dangerous players that puts everyone in a risky position.
What makes this film work is its impeccable sense of humor. It is written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the team behind “I Love You Phillip Morris” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love”. Their talent and uncommon knack for writing characters and dialogue that can be simultaneously crude and sweet natured is as standoffish as it is compelling. Their work, along with their skills at blending broad comedy with bitter drama, makes this film slightly more enjoyable than other movies about these types of characters because Ficarra and Requa never try to outsmart their viewers. They write and develop interesting characters that are relatable and evolve and focus their story around those characters.
Smith has taken some flack recently for losing some box office clout after the disappointment of “After Earth” and “Winter’s Tale” being labeled both critical and financial failures. While there are many who may be tired of Smith’s big-budget action epics, his work here is confident, comedic, and yet, understated. This is easily one of his better performances since his nominated role in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and will hopefully be the start of a second phase of more subtle adult work in his career. Robbie garnered much attention for “The Wolf of Wall Street” and she does more than hold her own here against Smith, with her character being vulnerable but not weak. As excellent as the two leads are, it is the supporting cast who truly steal the show. Wong and McRaney nail every comedic and dramatic beat hurled their way, and they steal every scene in which they appear.
This is funny, smart, and most importantly, entertaining filmmaking and it manages to hold its own against other films with similar subject matter. “Focus” may not be anything new or original, but it is a fun time at the movies and that is all it aims to be. Bravo.