Chemistry between actors and actresses is such a fleeting, difficult thing to pin down, and movie screens are littered every week with onscreen couples who fail to find the spark. That’s not the case with Focus, the new heist thriller starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie: at the risk of sounding tasteless, I might be a little more open to believing those trashy tabloid stories about their supposed off-screen dalliance based on the heat the two generate in this twisty caper from writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid Love). But despite the successful pairing of the veteran Smith and relative newcomer Robbie, Focus eventually plays out like a con game itself, building up to a finish that leaves you feeling vaguely cheated.
Smith plays Nicky, a career grifter whose expertise ranges from picking pockets to running long cons worth millions. The only things he can’t handle well, thanks to a dysfunctional family history, are attachments; like Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley in Heat, he’s prepared to walk away from anyone and anything at a moment’s notice. But when an aspiring con artist named Jess (Robbie) comes into his orbit, Nicky is slightly thrown off. After showing her the basics in New York and introducing her to a complicated scam at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, he ditches her – only to run into her again three years later in Buenos Aires. It is there that Nicky is about to pull off a massive con involving a high-stakes auto race. The question is, can he keep his focus on the prize?
Ficarra and Requa drape their story – which is, at its heart, a slow-burning romance dressed in the trappings of a faster-paced crime escapade – in as many beautiful decorations as possible. The locations are sumptuous, the cars and clothes often fabulous, and of course the 46-year-old Smith and 24-year-old Robbie are in peak shape. Smith, after phoning it in for Men in Black 3 and going almost ridiculously grim in After Earth, finds a sweet spot here. Nicky combines his jauntier wisecracking self with the heart of a wounded, defensive child left to fend on the streets. Robbie, meanwhile, oozes the same simmering sexuality that lit up The Wolf of Wall Street in a role not too far removed from that film’s Naomi; she’s a brash, confident presence, but we’ll hopefully see more range in from her in roles down the line.
[Related: First trailer for Focus, starring Will Smith]
Less charismatic than Smith and Robbie, but equally helpful, are a sturdy supporting cast that includes standout performances from B.D. Wong as a sleazy businessman who goes toe-to-toe – and millions-to-millions – with Nicky in a Super Bowl betting marathon, and Gerald McRaney as the ruthless, cruelly misanthropic right hand man of the race car owner that hires Nicky in Argentina (between this and his work in House of Cards, McRaney should be first in line if they ever make a biopic of the ultimate amoral bastard, Dick Cheney). Yet the focus here – no pun intended – is squarely on the two leads, who joust with each other in crackling fashion and provide what emotional heart the film has.
But the mechanics of the story around them – starting with Nicky’s Super Bowl scam before moving on to the racecar job in Buenos Aires – often clash with the romantic fireworks. The cons are played for almost Ocean’s Eleven-like complexity and strain one’s belief: the excellent sequence in which Nicky lays out the full picture of the Super Bowl job pushes his scientific approach toward the con to its breaking point, but the Argentina job smashes right through it. The switchbacks, betrayals and reversals pile so high that they finally begin to totter over, leading to a strangely subdued climax that doesn’t bring the central relationship to a boil or generate the kind of satisfying payoff Steven Soderbergh achieved with the first of his caper trilogy.
Focus is amiable, intelligent and slick enough to lure you into its game; there’s no higher purpose to the film than to wrap you around its finger and keep you entwined there. But that disappointing final stretch makes you realize in retrospect that even with its gleaming, eye-catching surface pleasures, Focus is as shallow as the life that Nicky and his colleagues lead. In a way, the filmmakers – aided and abetted by their willing leads – are pulling a scam on the audience too. It seems like a lot of fun along the way, until you realized you’ve just been distracted all this time.
Focus is out in theaters Friday (February 27).