February is the time for movies that look slick and promising, but that turn out to have something major wrong with them; otherwise, they’d be opening in May. “Focus” fits right into that pattern, a movie about con artists that’s itself an elaborate con.
The movie’s con is that it’s showing us a secret underworld, something real that we’ve never seen or imagined, that it’s revealing how the big boys operate. But it’s not doing any of those things. “Focus” is ridiculous in every detail. It’s a movie with no truth, that teaches nothing and shows nothing, that has only its audacity to recommend it. Once that’s realized, it’s possible to take it for what it is and enjoy it, a little.
Forget the con artists and think of it as a movie about Will Smith’s jaded charm and about how Margot Robbie looks completely different when she wears her hair up or down. Think of it as scenes disconnected from other scenes, that are amusing for their own sake but that have little to do with each other. Then you won’t be disappointed.
One scene in particular captures the strengths and weaknesses of “Focus.” Smith and Robbie are in a VIP box at a football game, making small bets with each other, and an Asian businessman asks if he can bet with them. As the stakes rise, from $10 into the multiple thousands, the businessman goes from seeming innocuous to sinister, and the personal dynamic is fascinating. You can’t take your eyes off B.D. Wong, who plays the businessman with an arresting mix of giddy playfulness and menace.
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But the scene itself is absurd, not just far-fetched, but groan-out-loud ludicrous. And the resolution — that is, the explanation that comes after — only makes it worse.
Nicky (Smith) and Jess (Robbie) meet cute, with Jess trying to swindle him. When she realizes that she can’t cheat a cheater, that she has hooked the Yoda of crooks, she begs him to give her lessons in stealing. He proceeds to give her a tutorial on picking pockets. Apparently, it’s all about focus.
The first hint that the movie is just plain silly is Jess’s audition scene, in which she picks about a dozen wallets and assorted jewelry, in a series of intricately choreographed moves involving multiple accomplices. Pretty good for a first-time out. The second hint comes when we see Nicky’s operation — a massive warehouse in which wallets and jewelry are coming in from multiple sources. For some reason, all these independent pickpockets feel the need to kick up to him. Maybe they owe him. Maybe he did for them what he did for Jess, taught them how to become masters of the craft in just one five-minute lesson.
Yet for all this, the nature of Nicky’s business remains vague; it seems to be whatever the script wants it be at any given moment. So, though we’re introduced to him as the Mozart of pickpocketing, we’re also to understand that he’s a swindler of international scope. Most of the film, in fact, takes place in Buenos Aires, with Nicky working a con for a major tycoon — but by this time, you don’t know what’s going on. You just know that nothing can be as it seems. That really means watching the movie waiting for the trick, which is not the same as being fooled.
There are some scattered good moments; for example, the disconcerting sound of race cars whizzing by outside, as two people converse inside the track’s cafe. They sound like powerful mosquitoes. And Adrian Martinez has a couple of funny scenes as a socially maladroit con artist.
But the emotional core of the movie, the relationship between Nicky and Jess, lacks impact, mostly because you can’t believe a word that they say, but also because Smith is not a strong leading man. Smith’s idea of playing romance is to act cool and his idea of playing cool is to act withdrawn and serious. That means the eclipse of the thing that made him a movie star in the first place, his personality.