Film review: Will Smith and Margot Robbie are grifters in love in ‘Focus’

Smith and Robbie talk shop.

Three and a half stars

Focus Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez. Directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. Rated R. Opens Friday.

The inherent difficulty in making a movie about con artists is that the audience will spend the entire movie anticipating the Big Twist, missing many of the little pleasures along the way in favor of parsing every interaction for clues about who is playing whom. Writer-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (I Love You Phillip Morris) don’t entirely avoid this problem in their glossy, uneven drama Focus, but they do manage to veer away from the most obvious reveals, leaving the audience guessing without undermining previously established character relationships.

Mainly that’s the dynamic between veteran con artist Nicky (Will Smith) and his protégé Jess (Margot Robbie), whom he takes under his wing (and then, of course, into his bed) after she clumsily tries to con him. The movie is divided into two halves involving two big jobs, three years apart: In the first half, Nicky and Jess are part of a team of pickpockets and identity thieves in New Orleans during the Super Bowl; in the second half, they encounter each other again in Buenos Aires as Nicky is running a con on a race-car mogul (Rodrigo Santoro). Smith and Robbie have fantastic chemistry, and they both bring natural charm to their wary but exuberant characters. Robbie, who had a small but memorable role in The Wolf of Wall Street, gives a major star-making performance.

The movie’s first half is playful and sly, ending with a small but satisfying twist. The second half is less successful, as Requa and Ficarra build up the suspense, and then pull back the curtain a few too many times in the finale. Even as they do so, they subvert some expectations of how these kinds of stories wrap up, and while the ending’s a bit convoluted, it doesn’t feel like a cheat.

Most importantly, it keeps the relationship between Nicky and Jess intact, since that’s what holds the movie together. It’s fun to watch them put one over on unsuspecting marks, but it’s even more enjoyable to see them let down their considerable defenses and connect emotionally (especially in one steamy scene that recalls Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight). For a con artist, that’s the toughest feat to pull off.

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