'Focus' makes swindling fun

It's not easy to do con men movies these days. Moviegoers know all the angles. You have to cook up a character like Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) in “Focus.” He's a third-generation con man who knows all the angles, both ancient and modern.

That is, except for the kind of blond-haired, blue-eyed angle that looks like she was created by the gods out of diamonds and marshmallows.

That would be Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie, from “The Wolf of Wall Street”), who gets to Nicky so badly that he loses concentration in the middle of a con.

As it begins, Nicky is already a master, using partners to run many schemes under the radar and making a tidy profit. Jess tries to pull an amateur con on him, luring him to her hotel room and having her “husband” burst in with a gun, but Nicky easily calls it.

Jess pesters him to train her, and he does a good job of it. She becomes an expert pickpocket.

A big weekend in New Orleans nets $1.2 million, but after a nerve-wracking encounter with a high-rolling gambler (San Francisco's own BD Wong), Nicky leaves Jess without a word.

Three years later, Nicky is working on a new con, involving an Italian race car champ, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), and his unbeatable fuel monitoring formula, but Nicky is thrown for a loop when he sees that Jess has become Garriga's boyfriend.

Parts of “Focus” consist of regular movie romance stuff – chasing, seducing, rebuffing, etc. – but we never know what is real and what is conning. Sometimes the cons look like cons, but they're actually real, and vice-versa.

It's all the work of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote the original screenplay for Terry Zwigoff's “Bad Santa,” and then turned director with the crafty, unconventional films “I Love You Phillip Morris” (2009) — another con man story — and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” (2011), about a pickup artist.

In other words, they seem to specialize in the routines of human behavior, outlining the ways these routines are supposed to go, and then throwing monkey wrenches into the works.

Their previous films were comedies, and while “Focus” is not exactly funny, it is light-hearted and fleet-footed. Dialogue is sometimes subtle, such as a running gag about a “cleanse.”

Smith and Robbie make quite the team, teasing and testing each other incessantly, and always impressed by each other's efforts.

Even if clever, con-savvy audiences figure out what the big plot is going to be, it's not quite so easy figuring out what these two are up to.



Three stars

Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes

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