If Grace Kelly had been raised by coyotes, she might have stalked the screen like Focus’s Margot Robbie, a va-va-voom blonde with bite. Robbie is too beautiful to play normal, too sly to play nice. Miscast as a shy saint in Craig Zobel’s upcoming Sundance hit Z for Zachariah, she had to disguise herself as a brunette. Robbie’s more at ease when she can let ’er rip, as she did in her big debut as Leonardo DiCaprio’s gold-digging wife in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Only once every half-dozen years does a new actress jolt the screen like a taser, paralyzing the audience into waiting in their seats for the credits to find out her name. Before Robbie, there was Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Cameron Diaz in The Mask, Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, and, more recently, Emma Stone, though her initial impact was spread out over several niche flicks. Robbie will have to royally screw up to avoid becoming a movie star.
Focus is a bright trifle that shows Robbie off like a canary diamond. She plays Jess Barrett, a small-time shakedown artist who sets up men in bars by luring them to her bedroom, where her “boyfriend” pops out with a gun. As Jess sees it, her career options are criminal or hooker. Arguably, she’s selling herself short. But if she’s gonna go crooked, she’ll intern with the Bill Gates of bamboozling: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), the scion of three generations of thieves whose DNA is so thick with poison that his dad murdered his grandfather to save his own neck.
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This is the second time Robbie’s played plus-one to a cheat. In The Wolf of Wall Street, she was Jordan Belfort’s trophy. Here she’s on more equal ground as Nicky’s wingwoman and booby trap. He squeezes her into a too-small shirt and shoos her onto Bourbon Street, where all eyes — including ours — stay on Robbie while Spurgeon’s team of pickpockets fleeces the crowd. Technically, Nicky doesn’t need Jess, but she’s a hell of a bonus.
The same goes for Will Smith. He rarely pairs with women on screen, preferring the company of men, children and monsters. But a guy can’t keep saving the world forever. Focus is Smith’s attempt to remind audiences that he’s not just a hero; he’s also a man. A man who likes boobs. He and Robbie have an unusual spark. Their characters flirt as he strips her of her valuables — wallet, watch, Zumba membership — one after the other, like a magician pulling out scarves. In the bedroom, Robbie dutifully coils around him like a snake. She nearly makes the scenes work, radiating heat that reflects off Smith like a mirror. And if you don’t totally buy it, that’s okay, too: Writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) have carved so many switchbacks into the script that even Nicky and Jess can’t tell when they’re telling the truth. At their own posh-restaurant first encounter, he’s there as a fake chef, she’s there on a fake date, and he agrees to play her fake boyfriend. They’re fated to lie to each other until the credits roll or they collapse in exhaustion.
Simply keeping pace with all this deception feels like a marathon. Ficarra and Requa keep us ignorant of the scams until each ruse has been won or lost. Then they rewind and reveal the trick. It’d be more fun if Focus invited us to join Nicky’s gang. Left outside, viewers might feel like they’re watching a commercial for a car they’ll never be able to afford. It even looks like one: Xavier Grobet’s slick cinematography feels as though he’s filtered the world through Photoshop. Everything is amped up and unnatural — Nicky and Jess’s crisp zingers, the briefcases of cash people casually tote, our mounting suspicion that we can’t trust one frame of what we’re watching.
With every take-backsies, it’s harder to care about the characters. As Nicky warns, “Love will get you killed.” Yet it’s fun to see a film that could easily veer into numbing shootouts stand firm in its desire to be Charade, especially when it’s cast stars who were — or soon will be — as bright as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.