The Slickest They Is: Focus

02/25/2015 8:59 AM |
photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Opens February 27

For its first two acts, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s twisty con artist romance is a slick delight. Will Smith is Nicky, a charismatic grifter who crosses paths with amateur thief Jess (The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie) after she and an inept partner try to rip him off in a Manhattan hotel. Realizing Nicky is her entrée into an exclusive criminal underworld of lucrative hustles and scams, Jess convinces him to be her mentor. Atop the snow-covered roof garden of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe theater, Nicky educates his protégé in sleight-of-hand watch and wallet lifts—a schooling that doubles as the first of this very attractive duo’s many amorous gambols.

It isn’t long before Jess is brought into the flimflammer’s fold for a series of con jobs during championship football week in New Orleans. This extended section is the movie’s highlight, as Nicky, Jess, and a motley crew of mountebanks lift all manner of valuables from unsuspecting gridiron fanatics. It culminates in a brilliant setpiece in a VIP skybox at the Superdome as Nicky appears to lose all of the stolen cash in a series of bets with a gambling-addicted businessman (BD Wong)…or does he? (If nothing else, this beautifully constructed scene shows there’s still inspiration to be wrung from yet zanother needle-drop of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil.”)

Post-New Orleans, the film jumps forward three years and one continent to Buenos Aires, where Nicky and Jess find themselves at odds trying to pull one over on a wealthy race car enthusiast (Rodrigo Santoro). The double-crosses and deceptions pile up (none too convincingly) and the movie goes irreparably slack—a problem that also plagued Ficara and Requa’s relationship comedy Crazy Stupid Love, which, similarly, began boisterously and then turned irritatingly sluggish. Swindler cinema is only as good as its architecture; once the big picture is revealed, viewers should be thrilled at having had one pulled over on them. Focus, sadly, leaves you feeling bilked.