In “Focus,” Margot Robbie distinguishes herself from other little-known actresses who have played opposite famous older men in forgettable studio films.
She outshines Olivia Wilde. She separates herself from the Amber Heard.
As a con woman learning from a master crook (Will Smith), Robbie combines radiance, sass and a remarkably solid presence, given that she’s only 24.
Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) is mature in bearing, in the manner of a Hitchcock blonde. Yet she also seems her age. In “Focus,” the Aussie actress nails a young-American accent. She drags her vowels slightly, the way many young people do in the United States.
Her femme-fatale looks and her speech do not match up, keeping the viewer slightly off balance – appropriate when watching a film about grifters.
Too bad her character, Jess, ultimately amounts to so little, after a highly promising start. Same goes for “Focus.”
Director-screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra build momentum and bring vibrant energy to intricately choreographed scenes during which Smith’s character, Nicky, and his large team of crooks teach neophyte Jess the ins and outs of their cons – on live victims. Then the filmmakers blow it by shifting emphasis to a romance between Nicky and Jess.
Requa and Ficarra made “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” in which smoothie Ryan Gosling taught the recently separated Steve Carell the dating game. In “Hitch,” smoothie Smith taught the hapless Kevin James the ways of women.
Since those movies were good, the collaboration of Requa, Ficarra and Smith should, in theory, result in a this-is-how-to-do-it confluence that outdoes either previous film. But that does not happen, because of the added mentor-mentee love angle, which is rushed and not particularly compelling.
You can’t fault Smith for returning to the “Hitch” realm of romance, sleek interiors and beautiful clothes, or for wanting to be in an R-rated film with adult themes and occasionally raunchy banter (Requa and Ficarra also wrote “Bad Santa”). Such elements have been uncommon in a career filled with films about cops, aliens and apocalypse survivors. The dismal sci-fi film “After Earth” did little to revive Smith’s former status as a can’t-miss box office draw. Why not try something different?
Though Smith, at 46, is nearly twice Robbie’s age, they make a plausible on-screen pair. They spark together, though not enough to sell their characters’ relationship as the film’s focal point.
Nicky first meets Jess at a hotel restaurant, where she and a cohort try to run a ruse in which Jess seduces Nicky and takes him back to her room, where her angry “husband” then barges in. Nicky is supposed to be too distracted to keep track of his valuables.
Nicky is three steps ahead of Jess about the ruse. But he sees possibilities in this kid, and once she learns who he is, Jess wants to learn from the best. She joins Nicky’s team of pickpockets and credit-card thieves, who work in cities hosting big events that attract crowds with money.
Nicky teaches Jess the power of distraction: Bump into a stranger, then touch his shoulder in would-be apology, so his brain signals to the shoulder while your other hand fishes his wallet from his back pocket.
Nicky and his crew run elaborate schemes on crowds in New Orleans during the Super Bowl (a fictional one featuring a team called the Rhinos) and install fake facades on ATM machines to steal PIN numbers. They steal credit cards off restaurant servers’ trays, returning the cards but copying the numbers.
Nicky’s team moves seamlessly through well-heeled crowds because they dress beautifully and lack the rougher-hewn looks and/or addictions their their real-life counterparts likely would bear.
Accepting the criminals’ robust health becomes part of our willing suspension of disbelief as the schemes become more sophisticated and, finally, preposterous. These scenes are fun. They would stop being fun if we took a moment to consider how unlikely it would be to pull off such acts.
Plus, BD Wong is a kick as a whale against whom Nicky bets while in a Super Bowl luxury box. Wong is boisterous yet never goes over the top. Rodrigo Santoro, by contrast, chugs scenery as a whale Nicky encounters later in the film.
The crossing and double-crossing absorb before “Focus” decides that Nicky and Jess, who have spent only a few days together, are the love story of the century, and that the rest of the film should tell it.
This development happens before we get to know them as people and not just perpetrators. And when we do get to know them … they are terrible people.
Planning to knock over a mega-bucks casino in “Ocean’s Eleven” is one thing. Nicky and Jess steal innocent people’s credit cards, by the hundreds and thousands. Who cares if these creeps find love?
Also, once the romance takes the spotlight, Smith’s acting goes off a cliff. When the Nicky-Jess relationship hits a snag, Smith knits his brow dramatically but keeps the rest of his face blank. Smith does better in breezier territory.
The bigger disappointment of the film’s second half is that the big reveal you keep expecting from Jess – a twist that might lend her some some much-needed complexity – never materializes.
Robbie brings such genuine feeling to heavier scenes and such joy to light ones that her acting fools us into thinking Jess is a more developed character than she is.
Robbie appears to be keeping sight of the long game, even if her character isn’t. Stealing a Will Smith movie from Will Smith is a start.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, BD Wong
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Rated R (some sexual content and brief violence)