Crazy, Stupid, Chances: Focus
Two skilled con artists come together when one tries to con the other. Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), the son of a con artist himself, meets Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) at a New York club where she pretends to have an interest in Nicky. She takes him to her hotel room, where she tells him she has a husband. That man, who's in on the ploy, bursts into the room with a gun, threatening to kill Nicky. Nicky calls their bluff, citing cancer, and causes Jess's partner to stop. Before he leaves for his next job, Nicky tracks Jess when she's off duty. When he gets her attention, he takes the time to show her a thing or two about picking pockets, another skill Jess does proficiently.
In time, each makes their way to New Orleans, where they work on that skill and other cons with a team of others with whom they're acquainted. They assemble for a big football game, where fans lose their money without even knowing it. Nicky introduces Jess to Fahrad (Adrian Martinez), a con artist with a creative way of accessing a person's bank account information. When they've run their various cons, their organizer, Horst (Brennan Brown), entrusts that Nicky, in spite of a penchant for gambling, Some small wagering between Nicky and Jess at the game gets the attention of Liyuan (B. D. Wong), an even bigger gambler than Nicky. After losing all of the take on risky bets with Liyuan, he gets it all back thanks to a little help from some friends. After they leave the game, Nicky gives Jess her cut, and they go their separate ways.
They don't see each other again for three more years, when Nicky starts to work for Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), an Argentine race car team owner looking to sell a fuel formula that looks legitimate, but actually makes cars run slower. To sell it, Garriga needs to create a public scene between himself and Nicky. Jess, meanwhile, has been seeing Garriga, and tells Nicky she's stopped her cons. Nicky learns something that makes him start following her again. His activity gets the attention of Owens (Gerald McRaney), Garriga's top security man. Owens even comes to his hotel room because of his suspicions. Nicky makes the deal he was hired to do, but finds out that somebody knows that he's done something more.
Focus is an interesting film about the art of the scam from the writing and directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. I like the twists about the cons and about the relationship between Nicky and Jess, but it ultimately a film about people who cheat their way through life. In the final sequence, at least, one group of cons matches wits with another set of cons. Also, Focus plays like a lighter version of David Mamet films about more compelling con games, such as House Of Cards and The Spanish Prisoner. Ficarra and Requa also have some pacing issues, as some sequences in the film move too slowly. While I enjoyed the film overall, I think these directors did a better job with the key plot twist with their previous film, Crazy, Stupid, Love.
The main appeal of Focus lies in the performances. Smith shows considerable charm as Nicky, who finds himself impressed with the work of another who knows their line of work. Yet, he can make that charming side disappear when he gambles, whether for high stakes with Liyuan or a different set of high stakes when he starts to develop feelings for Jess. Robbie is stunning and smart as Jess. Yet, when Nicky catches her con, she starts to find true interest in him. That doesn't change, even in the intervals when they don't see each other. Martinez is fun as the friend of Nicky's who manages to be there when Nicky needs him the most. McR aney also provides great support as the very gruff and demanding Owens, who's never afraid to speak his mind about Nicky to his face.
Focus is not a smart film, but it is a clever one. Two people whose work requires close, but unnoticed, attention, meet. They have thoughts of forming some sort of partnership, but Nicky finds himself reluctant to make a full commitment. The thought, though, doesn't leave his mnd, even when he openly parts ways with Jess. On the other hand, Nicky likes to gamble, and the odds here might be more than astronomical. They are definitely intangible.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Focus three stars. Watch very closely.