Remember when Will Smith was box office gold? There was a time — nearly 20 years ago now — when he couldn't miss, when even if his movie was a dud, it still collected primo box office bucks. Then Hancock (2008) came out and he hasn't done anything decent since, and given the mediocrity of Focus, expect the downward trend to continue.
Sure, Smith brings his trademark rascally hip charm to Nicky, a con artist. And gorgeous Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) bestows beauty on Jess, an aspiring grifter Nicky takes under his wing. There's no debating they're both easy on the eyes. Nicky calls grifting "a game of focus" that is all about getting people's focus and taking what you want while their attention is elsewhere. No doubt this deception is meant to be a metaphor for the film as well, thereby prompting writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to pull the old switcheroo on the audience in the final moments. The problem is, the story lacks so much actual focus leading up to the finale that when the twist comes, we don't care. We're not paying attention.
The flow is disjointed throughout. Nicky and Jess meet in New York City, and in the film's only compelling sequence, he shows her the tricks of the trade of picking pockets and other small-time hoodlum grifts. They then work together in New Orleans, highlighted by an encounter with a billionaire gambler (BD Wong) at a football game. This sequence runs far too long, but there's a great payoff.
Afterward, about an hour into the film, the scene shifts three years ahead to Buenos Aires, where Nicky and Jess encounter new characters and a new set of problems. Now Nicky is working for an unnamed racing team owner (Rodrigo Santoro) who's dating Jess, and the owner's overprotective bodyguard (Gerald McRaney) is a constant nuisance. With a story line this much all over the place and lacking continuity, it's a wonder the script received a green light.
Not helping matters is the fact that Smith and Robbie have the chemistry of oil and water. Consider: This is a movie about con artists, so an engaged viewer has to presume at least one of them is playing the other. And the filmmakers go out of their way to make us believe this is the case. But Nicky and Jess never look too comfortable together, and their numerous long, tediously written and boring conversations do nothing to make us believe they're actually kindred spirits. These scenes are flat-out dull and lack intrigue. We don't feel for a second that they belong together, and because of that, the entire finale falls apart.
The main appeal of any con artist story is the guessing game, trying to figure out who's secretly working with whom before the twistedly twisted ending reveals all. If done right, it all comes together seamlessly, but we never see it coming. Focus, however, is remarkable in that nothing about it is appealing, and the ending feels more forced than clever. Sometimes, when a major movie star is involved in a clunker, you can at least say you understood what drew to him/her to the project — but Will Smith should've known better when he read the first page of this script.