Only lately could Will Smith play the sort of world-weary con artist at the center of “Focus” without seeming like he was trying on a jacket three sizes too wide. The Fresh Prince is now in his mid-forties, older than George Clooney in the first “Ocean’s 11,” and clearly aiming for a similar character here: game-tired, lucky to have made it this far in one piece, still able to turn up the charm, still able to notice a good woman when she descends a flight of stairs in a fabulous dress.
For Smith in “Focus,” the dame is an eager hustler-in-training, Jess (Margot Robbie), who tries to rustle him only to come pleading for tips when she realizes he’s the Yoda of petty thievery. Wouldn’t you know it, they develop a thing.
Clooney would be fine in this role a few years ago, in fact, but it suits the Smith of 2015. His Nicky doesn’t have the same chuckling pluck that you’ve come to know Smith for, though he’s still wry enough. Early on he discerns that his meeting with Jess is a setup — a basic honey trap, wherein they meet and head to her hotel room to snuggle before her partner bursts in with a gun, playing the jealous lover, to scare a wallet up.
Anyway, Nicky, back on the bed, facing down a chump with a pistol, cajoles the guy to pull the trigger, which of course was never going to happen, and then critiques the ham-handed ruse. He could’ve pulled off the same scene 10 years ago, but it would’ve contained 100 percent more smirk. Something happened to Smith since then. Maybe it was making only one noteworthy movie (and that’s being generous to “Men in Black 3”) during the past seven years or so? The hustle takes its toll.
In “Focus” the lady turns out to be a quick enough study, and even though writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa don’t give her much to work with — it’s hard to flesh out a character with a threadbare past, nothing monumental to say in the present and no definable future plans — Robbie is enough of a charmer herself to make the part pop. (You may know her previously as the bombshell wife on “Wolf of Wall Street” who had Leonard DiCaprio all-foursing across the floor.) She turns out to be a natural at the street-hustles and pickpocket misdirection that, in quantity, can make small scores accumulate into big ones.
The week of the Super Bowl the pair descend on New Orleans with Nicky’s crew and make a lucrative team. There an encounter with a high-rolling compulsive gambler (BD Wong) builds into the movie’s most memorable scene, albeit one that revels in such contrivance that you can’t take the rest of “Focus” seriously.
Maybe you don’t have to, to enjoy it. After a falling-out with his protege, Nicky’s next big score takes him to Formula One racing in Argentina, all cacophony and color. Will romance get in the way of work? (Would a romance even qualify as such if it didn’t?) The secret of a good heist movie, or even a passable one such as “Focus,” is to throw some impediment of the heart or conscience in front of a mercenary’s path: for what’s the fun of seeing anyone but the crook him(or her)self unwittingly make the collar?
Following that formula while adding enough cuteness for a proper date movie, “Focus” might best be seen as a stealth rom-com. Come for the grifting and the gunplay, stay for the boy-meets-Bonnie.