Near the beginning of “Focus,” Nicky, a veteran pickpocket and con man played by Will Smith, explains to a young recruit that the essence of the business is controlling the attention of the mark.
In the ideal con, the victim’s attention is fully engaged and completely distracted, thus leaving the scammer to work his or her magic. If the mark’s attention wanders, the gig is up — hence the paramount attention of maintaining, as the title says, focus.
It’s good advice for con artists and entertainers alike. Indeed, the movie’s makers might have paid a little more attention to it themselves.
The movie strikes a stylish pose and features a pair of engaging leads, but its script is episodic and far-fetched, and it can never quite decide whether it wants to be a story about a scam operation or a love affair.
Part of the problem is that the movie focuses on Nicky and the recruit, Jess (Margot Robbie), at the expense of almost every other character.
Adrian Martinez shows up for a few scenes of innuendo-filled comic relief as one of Nicky’s scam-ring associates, and Rodrigo Santoro and Gerald McRaney appear in the film’s awkwardly integrated second half as players in a complicated scam involving high-end race cars.
But even the best of the supporting characters — a groovy gambling nut played by BD Wong, whose single, midmovie scene is easily the film’s most memorable — barely registers.
Fortunately, Mr. Smith and Miss Robbie both deliver engaging, likable performances. Miss Robbie, whose turn in “The Wolf of Wall Street” was a standout, once again shows she has the chops and charm for a leading role, even if, as in “Wolf,” her part is underwritten and leans too heavily on her considerable beauty rather than her equally considerable wit.
The movie puts her in a series of tight dresses and skimpy outfits in order to remind the viewer of how stunningly gorgeous she is. Her performance, on the other hand, is full of expertly acted turns of tone and subtle misdirections that highlight how clever and funny she can be.
Mr. Smith, meanwhile, proves that he can still wield the sort of weaponized charm that has carried him throughout his career. He’s not always a great actor, but he is an intensely watchable one, an engaging presence who commands the screen and directs the audience’s attention with the skill of a practiced stage magician.
It’s the script by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also co-directed the film, that never quite finds itself. The first half, in which Nicky and Jess meet and come together, is too episodic and too skimpy on the details of Nicky’s complex scamming operation, which somewhat implausibly employs 30 people in a gorgeous loft space during the week before the Super Bowl.
The second half, meanwhile, finds the pair meeting again several years later during a new scam involving a racing kingpin played by Mr. Santoro.
But because it is so disconnected from the first hour, it feels more like an episode of television than a cinematic finale. The romance feels more sketched than developed, and the big cons in both halves rely on contrived scams that are practically impossible to believe.
In the end, it’s the gorgeous cinematography and the glitzy charisma of the two leads that carries the film. In some sense, the efforts of Mr. Smith and Ms. Robbie amount to a kind of con — that is, convincing viewers that this mediocre movie is better than it really is.
CREDITS: Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
RATING: R for sexual situations and profanity
RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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