★ ★ ★
An early scene in Focus has expert con man Nicky (Will Smith) teaching his beautiful protégé Jess (Margot Robbie) that you never break character, and that you always “die with the lie.” Although that initially sounds like the motto of a sociopath, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa spend the rest of the movie showing us that it’s actually the con-man equivalent of “’til death do us part.”
Nicky has studied human nature his whole life, and he understands precisely how to earn anybody’s trust: He can fool someone into never noticing he’s stealing their watch, or their wallet, or anything else they have that might be valuable. In the movie’s opening sequence, he’s eating at a New York restaurant when the gorgeous Jess approaches his table and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend so she can avoid a particularly determined guy at the bar who’s making a pass at her. The two hit it off, but he soon figures out that she’s running a scam on him and turns the tables on her and her partner.
Undaunted, Jess begs Nicky to teach her what he knows about the criminal life, and so he brings her in on a plan to scam as many people as possible during Super Bowl week in New Orleans. She turns out to be a natural, and quickly learns the ropes of this unscrupulous world. Nicky and Jess seem to be falling for each other, but Nicky’s actions at the end of their trip force Jess to reassess their relationship.
Three years later, Nicky enters into a deal with Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a wealthy playboy who has a software program that will help his Formula 1 team triumph. Nicky agrees to help Garriga sell a fake version of the program to his competitors, but as the plan goes into motion he discovers that Jess and Garriga are a couple. As old feelings complicate this arrangement, Nicky must also contend with Owens (Gerald McRaney), Garriga’s no-nonsense head of security who openly distrusts him.
Ficarra and Requa, who co-wrote the script and co-directed the movie, have a knack for coming up with punchy dialogue—almost every character gets a memorable joke. The cinematography is beautiful, everyone looks great, and the exotic locations are given a fashion-magazine gloss. They’ve also structured the story brilliantly by putting us in Jess’ POV during the film’s first half. She’s a newcomer to this world, and through her experiences we learn the cool con-game jargon and elaborate scams that will make you think twice about using your credit or ATM card on vacation.
The leads are appealing together, and that turns out to be the most crucial element of the movie; Focus is less interested in con artists getting away with tons of money than it is in exploring how difficult it is for people who lie for a living to fall in love and convince others of that love. Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity, with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, covered much of this territory better, but Focus is still an undeniably entertaining film. The performers win you over, especially Adrian Martinez as Farhad, Nicky’s most trusted (which is a relative thing in their world) partner-in-crime, and B.D. Wong as a wealthy gambling addict.
Stories about con artists are perfect fodder for movies. After all, what actor doesn’t want to play someone charming enough to manipulate others? The pitfall of portraying flimflam men onscreen, though, is that a smart viewer will be poised to watch everything that transpires even more closely than he or she normally would. Focus avoids that trap by giving audiences so much surface pleasure that, even if the filmmakers’ attempts at misdirection fail, you can enjoy the game the characters are playing.