Review: ‘Focus’ is long on movie star charisma but short on innovation

It's a con man movie, so you know up front that there are going to be cons played on the characters and the audience alike, and sure enough, “Focus” plays out like you'd expect a con man movie to play out. It is slick and it is well-made, and there is little or nothing about it that I'd call surprising. If you know what kind of genre you're getting into and you're going to see the good-looking movie stars do exactly what you expect them to do, “Focus” will go down easy this weekend.

Will Smith is in his comfort zone here as Nick, a big league con man who runs a sizable crew. When he spots Jess (Margot Robbie) one night at a bar, he knows she's got larceny in her blood right away. She's green, though, and she sees Nick as a possible mentor, someone who can teach her how to be more than just a distraction. It's the week of the Super Bowl, it's New Orleans, and the pickings are good. For a while, “Focus” just sort of chugs along affably, showing you how much research Glenn Ficarra and John Requa did. If you've ever seen news footage of Apollo Robbins, then you have a pretty good idea what the first chunk of this film looks like. There's a scene where Nick runs some patter on Jess, and it sounds like Smith's just straight-up doing what we've seen Robbins do, word for word.

That's not to say it's unenjoyable. Ficarra and Requa are good at creating a sense of momentum in their films that carries you along from scene to scene, and a film like this depends largely on chemistry. Smith and Robbie have bundles of it, so there is an easy pleasure to watching them circle each other. There is a large supporting cast in play, but it really all comes down to Smith and Robbie, and for both of them, it feels like they are at pivotal moments in their careers as movie stars.

Smith was bulletproof for the longest time, and part of what made him so reliable was his taste in picking projects. I don't think he ever picked the greatest films to make, but he had a knack for picking films that were just good enough, movies that maybe didn't work 100%, but that showcased him in the right way. I look at the two “Men In Black” films, and that's what I see… movies that are just good enough succeed, but that don't quite cross over into that thing that makes a film great. I think Smith is a movie star in the tradition that William Goldman wrote about in his landmark “Adventures In The Screen Trade,” someone who looks at his own role first, and then the film second. Smith knows how to build a character that plays to his strengths, and he is very good as Nick. He has just enough moments of levity to shine through the more serious stuff he has to play, and there's something appropriate about Smith playing someone who is always selling a surface without ever really giving up what's going on underneath. I think Will Smith (The Person) is very protective, and so Will Smith (The Movie Star) knows exactly how to keep the focus on the public person, not the private one, and “Focus” is a concentrated effort to remind the moviegoing audience of what he does well. Smith is so good at making everything he does look cool, and that's a pretty valuable quality to have for this particular character, so much so that Big Willie's swagger is practically fetishized here.

I reviewed “Z For Zachariah” at Sundance this year, and one of the things I find impressive about that film is just how different Margot Robbie is in it than in “Wolf Of Wall Street” or this film. She is a beautiful woman, no doubt about it, and much is made of that fact in “Focus.” She uses her appearance as a weapon, and as in “Wolf,” it looks to me like Robbie has that rare combination of skills required to become a Giant Movie Star. She knows exactly what the camera is seeing in every shot, and she knows how to play that particular angle, and she is also able to give a technically precise performance while keeping the emotional side of things turned all the way up. There are plenty of women who have appeared in films who are beautiful like Robbie, but she is only in her 20s, and she already has this razor-sharp knack for how to build characters and how to express three pages of dialogue in a single look or in what she leaves unsaid. She is thrilling to watch in close-up because of just how much appears to be happening behind those stunning eyes.

There's a set-piece about 40 minutes or so into the film featuring B.D. Wong, and it's the best part of the movie. I've seen a number of films in the last year about gamblers, and by far, this one sequence gets to the sick heart of problem gambling, and does it in just a few deft touches. There's one shot, and there's this crazy little focus thing that happens, and it manages to perfectly convey that feeling when the adrenaline floodgates open and you realize you have done something catastrophic that will most likely ruin you. Part of why it works is the script, part of it is Smith's performance, and part of it is that simple little twitch by Xavier Grobet, the film's cinematographer.

There's a parting of the ways at a certain point, and then we jump forward in time as the action shifts to Buenos Aires. There's a whole new con and a shuffling of the deck. Rodrigo Santoro shows up as Garriga, the owner of a Formula 1 racing team, and he's worried that people are going to steal this algorithm that he created. It gives his team a genuine advantage and he's convinced that one competitor in particular is going to somehow steal it from him. To that end, he hires Nick to set a trap for the other team owner, offering to sell him the secrets but in reality sabotaging them subtly so he can create even more of an advantage. He's got a right hand man, Owens (Gerald McRaney), who doesn't trust Nick at all. On the night they're hoping to kick off the long con, everything goes perfectly until Nick sees Jess. She's there with Garriga, and she swears she's gone straight.

So, yeah, of course complications ensue. And if you're paying even a little bit of attention, you'll see the film's multiple endings coming down Broadway. But it is a slick package, and there's an energy to it that I really liked. Ficarra and Requa have a fascinating track record together as the creative team behind films like “Bad Santa,” “Crazy Stupid Love,” and my favorite of their films, “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” and this falls in line with what they've been doing so far. They largely lean on formula, but in doing so, they push just that little bit further so it feels like you're seeing very very good formula. Their films don't really make that jump to being truly special. This may not change anyone's mind about the filmmakers, but it will definitely demonstrate that they are very good with movie stars, whether they're struggling to maintain their place in the firmament or just getting started.

“Focus” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.