Glenn Ficarra and John Renqua have made some films that are close to my heart. BAD SANTA, I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, CRAZY STUPID LOVE are movies that are funny and smart without resorting to schmaltz. Instead, they are subversive satires about human nature, and what happens when wide-eyed innocence meets conniving manipulator. The same premise is there in their latest, FOCUS, a film about cons that keeps the audience wondering who is conning whom and why. What it misses is the light touch that kept the other three films afloat even when going to some very dark places. Feh.
Not that there aren’t some splendid moments to be found here. Will Smith is all charismatic charm as Nicky, a master con man who takes the fledgling Tess (Margot Robbie), a buxom blonde with big eyes and emphatic lips, under his wing. Their first meeting is sharply written, archly played, with Tess trying to con Nicky only to be taken down with constructive criticism and a short course in the proper way to lift a wallet. Nicky’s plan to walk away is thwarted, or is it?, when Tess trails him from New York to New Orleans and insists on being part of the con Nicky and his troop of grifters are orchestrating for Super Bowl weekend. Romance and larceny ensue, with the workings of cons large and small demonstrated, courtesy of the film’s consultant, and done with such verve and finesse that one can’t be faulted for leaving the theater justifiably more paranoid than when one arrived. And clutching one’s valuables with a vice-like grip.
The film is full of maxims: never drop the con, love will get you killed, there is no such thing as a big score that leaves you set for life, and something called the Toledo Button. Pay attention, because it all ties together at the end, and the clues to what is happening behind the smoke and mirrors are laid out, but not more obviously than they have to be. The writersn being every bit as astute in understanding human nature as Nicky, play to our preconceived notions, and rarely disappoint, delivering the cons, and then, in flashback, explaining how they happened. The intricacies, the precision timing, are fascinating, though some of it is far-fetched, some of it is a little too convenient, but if handled as an insouciant comedy, or a one that is black, or both, it would have been perfection.
The problem is the tone. It’s uneven with the dead spots designed more to show off Smith’s personal magnetism, and how good Robbie and her pulsating lips look in a red evening gown or a black bikini, than it is to further the action. It is as irksome as it is unnecessary, considering how much the camera love these two. The tension and juxtaposition between the suspense of the con and the sparkling sophistication of the writing is faulty. Comedy, even black, is a delicate thing, and bad pacing will kill it every time. So will plunging too far into pathos, both of which happen with blithe abandon.
Still, Smith has the touch, as did Cary Grant, so that when Nicky falls victim to his gambling addiction, courtesy of a madly grinning enabler (B.D. Wong), the cockiness of overconfidence and the pull of weakness play into each other perfectly with a one-dollar bet growing to one for a million. His banter with Robbie, as Nicky and Tess fall in and out of conning each other is delicious, but just when we are willing to forgive anything, the film takes a hard left into stupid. As in someone is badly hurt, and, instead of rushing into the emergency room to which several people have sped, they sit outside while one of them tells a story. Sure, it’s a good story, and sure the writing is pretty good, but SOMONE IS BADLY HURT. They have come to the E.R. for a reason, and telling a story shouldn’t be it. Then, insult to injury, we discover that rather than park right in front of said E.R., they are a block or so away and have to walk the last bit.
As is the wont of films of this ilk, there are quirky characters who are shady but not necessarily evil. Gerald McRaney does crackling work as a crotchety geezer with issues about electronics; Brennan Brown as Nicky’s laconic factotum; and Adrian Martinez as the Persian with no boundaries but a soft spot for Nicky.
After the disaster that was AFTER EARTH, it is refreshing to see Smith in the sort of role that made him a superstar in the first place. It’s almost enough to get over the disappointment of FOCUS’ shortcomings. And this is, perhaps, the most annoying thing about FOCUS. Even with its bad points, it’s still worth seeing. Just barely.