After his recent string of underwhelming movies, Will Smith desperately needs a hit to restore his leading-man luster. Unfortunately, this strained, if attractively mounted, comedy about a con-man and his apprentice won’t do the trick. “Focus” strives for the combination of cleverness, sophisticated romance and tension that marked caper movies in the sixties and seventies, but it misses the target by a considerable distance. It’s all the more disappointing coming from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose “I Love You Phillip Morris,” though little seen, gave the genre a delightfully unusual twist. By contrast “Focus” is pretty but flat, a series of contrived twists that never achieve the engaging sense of surprise it’s obviously aiming for.
The movie falls into two parts. The first has Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), the suave leader of a team of pickpockets and tricksters, meeting Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), a beautiful dame whose clumsy attempt at conning him with the old “outraged husband” gambit shows her inexperience. Taking Jess under his wing, Nicky enlists her in a massive money-stealing effort by his crew at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. But after a game-time encounter with hotshot gambler Liyuan (BD Wong) that appears to go badly for Spurgeon, he sends Jess on her solo way.
Cut to three years later in Buenos Aires, where Nicky has contracted to mount a con for playboy Formula 1 team owner Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) that involves convincing his Austrian rival (Robert Taylor) to pay big bucks for a defanged version of a special speed-increasing gizmo. He’s thrown for a loop, however, by the sudden appearance of Jess on Garriga’s arm, which sends Spurgeon into a jealous tizzy and attracts the suspicious gaze of the owner’s crusty enforcer Owens (Gerald McRaney). Nicky’s con, of course, proves far more twisty than it originally appears, but though it involves some abrupt, momentarily shocking turns, in the end it proves an overcomplicated bit of humbug, which requires an elaborate, and frankly implausible, post-factum explanation in order to clue the audience in as to how the scheme was pulled off. (That’s not unlike the first-act encounter with Liyuan, which also necessitated a long-winded retrospective postscript.)
Smith frankly doesn’t seem all too happy throughout “Focus”—he certainly doesn’t manage the sort of charm that Cary Grant brought effortlessly to a similarly convoluted piece like “Charade.” Nor does Robbie, an icy blonde who generates about as much heat as the equally statuesque Tippi Hedron did for Hitchcock, set the screen afire. The two work hard to make things sizzle during their bedroom moments, but the effort at chemistry feels calculated, and a late-in-the-running sequence when both are in jeopardy lacks any genuine suspense. Of the supporting cast, only Adrian Martinez, serving as a comic foil playing Nicky’s chubby pal Farhad, connects with the audience; a sort of lesser version of Zach Galifianakis, he gets easy laughs with some affable jerk humor and a few sexual innuendos. Santoro is pretty much a stereotype and McRaney does his usual gruff act, while Wong masticates the scenery so thoroughly in his single scene that one has to wonder how the Super Dome survived him at all.
On the other hand, the movie looks great. The locations—in New York, New Orleans and Argentina—are gorgeous, and cinematographer Xavier Grobet uses them to the utmost. No less eye-catching are Elizabeth Mickle’s production design, Kelly Curley’s art direction, Lisa Sessions Morgan’s sets and Dayna Pink’s costumes—particularly the red dress that Robbie wears in a party scene, where she makes an entrance every bit as emphatic as the one Hitch contrived for Kim Novak in “Vertigo.” Nick Urata’s score, helped along by the song insertions overseen by Jason Ruder, tries to give the picture a steamy, sexual vibe, but it’s simply too loud, suggesting that the sound mix isn’t well judged.
In any event, all the visual glitz in the world can’t disguise the unhappy reality that “Focus” fails to recapture the magic of the best Hollywood caper movies of the past. As for Smith, it represents a comeback of sorts after the debacle of “After Earth”—what wouldn’t?—but his fans must still wait for something that will really restore his former glory.