The key to pulling off a scam, according to master con artist Nicky, is to throw off your mark’s focus.
Tap the poor slob on his right shoulder while you remove the Rolex from his left wrist. Misdirect. Confuse.
The same can be said of long-con movies (think “The Sting”), which bluff the audience to deliver a big “Gotcha!!!” payoff.
That’s the goal anyway. The problem with “Focus” is that, well, it has no focus.
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Not the characters. Not the fuzzy plotting. Not the halfhearted stab at romance.
Oh, there’s some diversion to be found in the high-roller settings: New Orleans when it hosts the Super Bowl, Buenos Aires during a Formula One race. It smacks of an old James Bond flick with a dash of “Thomas Crown Affair” slickness.
But this tepid “thriller” mostly coasts, offering a couple of minor diversions (it’s amusing to see how professional scammers go about their nefarious business) without ever delivering that “wow” moment.
The central relationship of “Focus” is between the slick, worldly Nicky (Will Smith) and the beautiful-but-scrambling Jess (Margot Robbie, who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street”).
Jess wants to be a con artist. After trying unsuccessfully to scam the wily Nicky, she changes gears and begs to become his protege. Turns out she has a real skill for misdirection — it helps that she’s movie-star glamorous.
Along with their professional relationship there’s a personal one, though with a long-con dude like Nicky you can’t count on his honesty even in the bedroom.
The film offers two big scams, one involving a rich Super Bowl bettor (B.D. Wong) who will lay down millions on any crazy wager. (Will the next play be a pass or a rush?)
The second centers on the billionaire owner of a race car team (Rodrigo Santoro of the “300” movies) and his menacing right-hand man (Gerald McRaney), who have developed a formula to give their drivers a winning edge. Nicky and Jess plan to steal the info and sell it to other teams, telling each that they will be the sole proprietors of the big secret.
For all the razzle-dazzle of Xavier Grobet’s cinematography, “Focus” never lifts off.
Smith, usually as charming a leading man as one could ask for, here seems preoccupied and sullen. (First the wipeout of “After Earth” and now this … has Will Smith lost his mojo?)
Robbie never moves beyond eager young apprentice.
Perhaps if we were invested in their romance we’d have a stake in the proceedings, but there’s no heat to be had.
Truth be told, the movie is practically stolen by Adrian Martinez as one of Nicky’s con-artist confederates, a scuzzy, gnomish fellow whose potty mouth is offset by his essential sweetness.
“Focus” was made by the writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose previous credits include “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “I Love You Phillip Morris” and the screenplay for the anti-Christmas classic “Bad Santa.”
The twisted charm those earlier titles generated is utterly missing this time around.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R | Time: 1:44