The rules of the con movie have long ago been established by such classics as The Lady Eve and Bedtime Story. The charming con man, the unwitting girl and the unexpected twist are all par for the genre’s course. So when one makes a film of this nature in the modern era, it’s key to lend some sort of edge to the plot that breathes at least a modicum of fresh life into it.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s third film together (I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy Stupid Love were their far superior previous efforts), Focus, relies on slick settings and attractive people to buttress an unsophisticated narrative thinly veiled by attempts at creating “twists and turns.”
Opening with a novice con woman named Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) sitting in a hotel bar with an older man who buys her drinks as he hits on her, Jess hones in on Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), a seasoned con man who immediately pinpoints Jess’ scam after she flirts with him by pretending to be annoyed by the old man even though she roofied him to ensure he doesn’t bother her anymore.
Intrigued enough by her game to further investigate, Nicky goes up to her hotel room with her where they start undressing each other. Before Nicky’s pants are off, Jess’ “husband” bursts through the door, threatening Nicky’s life with a gun. Cool, calm and collected, Nicky says, “Do it. Kill me.” This sort of nonchalance is nothing Jess has ever seen before, and she realizes he’s on to their con of stealing his money. When asked why he came up with her if he knew, Nicky responds, “Professional curiosity.”
That curiosity, evidently, leads Nicky to pursue Jess the next day, following her without her noticing it until he says, “You know, you really should be more careful.” Jess is both surprised and delighted that he’s sought her out, allowing him to teach her some tricks of his trade after they have a drink and share sob story information about one another (like how Jess is a dyslexic orphan who is just lucky not to be a prostitute or how Nicky’s grandfather had to shoot his dad to make a con believable–though, of course, his dad didn’t die). Anticipating what Jess will do next, Nicky tells her he’s headed to New Orleans for a championship football game. It is here that they will con every drunk and oblivious sports enthusiast in sight. Naturally, Jess follows him down there and is accepted onto his “team,” which also includes Farhad (Adrian Martinez), a perverse rotund man who Jess instantly clicks with because of his raunchy sense of humor.
Jess continues to charm Nicky with her pickpocketing savvy and general amenability to whatever a con requires. In spite of his best laid plans to avoid emotion, the two become romantically involved, which means a lot of contrived shots wherein the camera goes out of focus to, yes, indicate that Nicky has lost his focus on the con. By the time game day rolls around, the crew has raked in 1.2 million dollars, which Nicky is deliberately instructed in front of Jess not to gamble. With that, the team leaves and Jess and Nicky are left to attend the game together. It is there they encounter Liyuan Tse (B.D. Wong), a wealthy businessman who loves a bet. Soon, Nicky finds himself raising the stakes with him after losing the entire million dollars by double or nothing it if he can get Jess to guess which number player Tse chooses randomly from the field. Jess, horrified and not in the know that it’s all just a con, tries to back out, but is left no choice but to do it. She then puts on some binoculars and sees Farhad, number 55, on the field. Stunned and elated, she picks him as the player. In another hokey attempt at plot explanation, Nicky explains to her that they’ve been planting the number in Tse’s subconscious all day–this includes playing “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones, which repeats the phrase “woo woo” over and over again–“wu” in Chinese meaning five.
Even more enamored of Nicky’s talent in the wake of this dicey come-up, Jess is crushed when he leaves her behind to go off to the airport on his own. As Nicky cheesily states, after all, “There’s no room for heart in this game. It’ll get you killed.” Ficarra and Requa then cut to three years later, where Nicky finds himself in Buenos Aires at the behest of a rich race car mogul named Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Garriga’s henchman, Owens (Gerald McRaney), is skeptical of using Nicky for their plan to sell a fake model of the EXR to Garriga’s rival team owner, McEwen (Robert Taylor), an Australian businessman. The con involves Nicky posing as Garriga’s engineer at a party thrown to celebrate the upcoming race. It is here that Nicky will pretend to get belligerently drunk and pick a fight with Garriga so that he will “fire” him, thereby enticing McEwen to buy the formula from a slighted Nicky. Because, like Nicky also notes in one of his bathetic aphorisms, “There’s two kinds of people in the world: hammers and nails. You decide which one you want to be.”
Lately, Nicky feels more like a nail, especially after seeing that Jess has taken up with Garriga, sending him into an emotional frenzy he wasn’t prepared for. Still, the spark with Jess is undeniable, and Nicky’s jealousy is spurred on after he sees Jess being ogled at the pool of the hotel he’s staying at. In a dig at both Margot Robbie and Robert Taylor–both from Australia, Nicky says to Jess, “Put some clothes on–there are Australians here.” Hesitant to believe Nicky has changed, Jess is aloof and almost cruel toward him and his attempts to win her back. Ultimately, however, she relents, agreeing to leave Buenos Aires with him after he sells the real formula to multiple racing competitors for millions upon millions of dollars. The final two twists are not all that shocking, and don’t really make up for the fact that this isn’t a movie that honors the chutzpah of the con genre.