The trouble with movies about “The Big Con” is that they condition us not to believe anything we see up on screen – relationships, who is conning whom, deaths, etc.
“Focus” one-ups that by pushing a romance to the fore, one that is supposed to be fun, sexy and cute. But when we don’t buy the veteran con man (Will Smith) in love with the hot young acolyte (Margot Robbie), well, what is there to cling to? They generate about as much heat as John Travolta and Idina Menzel managed on Sunday night’s Oscars.
Chemistry, or the lack of it, burns a big hole in this supposedly romantic, unconvincingly tense, feebly comical caper from the guys who gave us “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. It’s got an “Ocean’s 11” sheen without the requisite snap, a “Grifters” set-up without an edge or sexual spark.
Smith is Nicky, a third-generation hustler who runs a team of pickpockets, grifters and thieves who show up at major sporting events and ruin a lot of peoples’ vacations. When Jess (Robbie) throws herself in his path in a swank restaurant where she’s just lifted the wallet off a mark, Nicky sizes her up, shoots her down and inspires her plea.
So the script has Nicky unleash every Big Con cliche about a “touch,” what to do with a “poke,” what the “Toledo Panic Button” is, etc.
“Die with the lie,” he preaches. “You never drop the con. You never break.”
Jess gets in on his “Big Game” operation at the Super Dome, which provides the film’s first actual surprise. But how can this love connection work out when nobody can ever trust anybody else?
Robbie is gorgeous, stunning, physical perfection. And a fairly bland actress. Smith should have developed some romantic comedy chops by now, and he’s OK with a one-liner. But seriously, these two in the clinches? It’s like Neil Patrick Harris is in the room – dying, all over again.
“Focus” is stolen by two supporting players, the only actors to give it the colorful characters it needs for that breath of life. B.D. Wong is an amusingly bent, super-rich gambler who gets into a competition with Nicky. And Adrian Martinez chews it up as the sarcastic, crude-talking walking sight gag, Farhad, the team’s tech whiz.
But a weak villain, a couple of eye-rollingly unlikely cons and dead stretches that make 105 minutes play like 145, and you’ve got “Focus,” the last dog of February, where comatose con job movies are released to the sounds of silence.
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