A good con-artist movie isn’t that much different from a good con.

A good con-artist movie isn’t that much different from a good con. It’s all about distraction and sleight of hand, creating a false narrative to draw the viewer’s attention away from the real plot playing out behind the feint, and leaving behind a story that the mark can hang on to.

In Focus, Will Smith is all arrogant confidence as Nicky, the veteran pro who runs his jobs like a coach fielding a champion team. He’s not interested in one big score, but in racking up points in a rapid-fire succession of plays throughout the game. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) is working-class grifter Jess, the minor-league talent who proves to be a natural as the distraction, if not star player, of Nicky’s squad.

The team picks pockets in New Orleans, rubs elbows with the rich and reckless in a Super Bowl skybox, and hits the racetrack circuit in Buenos Aires, all while a jukebox soundtrack of bouncy beats sets the tone. That’s part of the fun of the con movie: the rush of grifting as the just deserts of the rich and corrupt meted out by beautiful people and eccentric sidekicks.

Filmmaking team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote Bad Santa and directed Crazy Stupid Love, seed the script with clues and suggestions and comic relief (Adrian Martinez as Nicky’s harmlessly crude partner in scam) to keep us looking in the wrong direction, manufacturing one kind of drama while surreptitiously playing out another. It’s kind of fun as those things go, at least until the con is dropped. Without their carefully cultivated pose in place, Smith and Robbie have nothing to fall back on, and are left to bicker like idiots. It would be clever if that were the point, but it’s merely a failure of imagination.

Focus would like nothing more than to evoke the easy style and playful personality of the Oceans movies, but surface glamour is no substitute for character. The boyish charm that made Smith a star feels strained here, and his Nicky comes off as just another stock character in his arsenal. Jess is stuck as the sexy ingenue, always a step behind the play, and Robbie is as much audience substitute as diversion. A touch of healthy cynicism from the filmmakers would help, but I’d settle for even a little ambivalence. Ficarra and Requa are so busy keeping us guessing at the endgame with their carefully engineered bluffs and feints and reversals that they fail to give us a story.


FOCUS Opens Fri., Feb. 27 at Sundance, Ark Lodge, and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.