Movies don’t have to be an either/or proposition. They can be both smart and fun, a pleasure without guilt and self-aware without being snobby.
The writing and directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa specialize in something all too rare in contemporary Hollywood, movies that are entertaining but not dumb. Think of their movies as artisanal popcorn.
Their latest is “Focus,” a sleek, globe-hopping con-artist caper with a healthy dose of sex and romance and more than just a dash of existential self-reflection from a charming character played by charming superstar Will Smith.
“It’s just where we come from. We’re both fans of more intelligent movies,” said Requa. “We’re very influenced by independent film and foreign film, but at the same time, we’re huge fans of genre and kind of more mindless fare. It’s just our taste.
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“It’s what makes it fun for us. Ultimately, how the movies we write all start is just a couple of nerds in a room trying to entertain each other. So we’re trying to be smarter and funnier than the last thing the other guy said.”
By their own count, Ficarra and Requa have been writing together for 28 years. As screenwriters, their collaborations have included “Cats & Dogs,” “Bad Santa” and Richard Linklater’s remake of “Bad News Bears.” They made their debut as directors with their own adapted screenplay for “I Love You Phillip Morris” and then directed Dan Fogelman’s script for “Crazy, Stupid Love.” They directed “Focus” from their original script.
As “Focus” opens, Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) seems at the top of his game as a sharp-eyed confidence man running scams big and small. He takes on Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) as a protégé, manipulating her inexperience in a series of cons, culminating at a championship football game in New Orleans.
He then abruptly leaves her behind, and it is three years until the two cross paths again in Buenos Aires. Nicky isn’t sure which side she’s on as they both circle wealthy playboy Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) for another big score.
Juggling a twisting plot, tonal shifts among drama, comedy and romance, large set pieces and moving the production to Buenos Aires, Requa and Ficarra handle it all with a jaunty ease.
“It’s a very ambitious movie. The fact that they wrote it for themselves, I think they designed it almost as a challenge,” said producer Denise Di Novi. “It’s harder than it looks.”
Just as Ficarra and Requa like to upend expectations with their storytelling, they also get unexpected performances out of their casts. Jim Carrey’s manic energy was harnessed to unexpected romantic pathos opposite Ewan McGregor in “Philip Morris.” In “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” they got a bright, movie star-charming performance from Ryan Gosling, and now with “Focus,” they pull a moody turn out of Smith.
“We all know Will, and he’s … charming. He’s just a naturally charming guy,” Ficarra said. “And so our whole premise with Will was what if your whole persona was just a total act and we got to see a little bit behind it and you were just really an unhappy guy with bad intentions and then there was even more behind that as to why he was that way.”
Once Smith was cast, the filmmakers needed to find an actress who could inhabit the part of Jess, flittering enigmatically across a spectrum from innocent ingenue and damsel in distress to savvy, worldly femme fatale. Robbie, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” was an unexpected hunch that paid off again.
Ficarra and Requa are already shooting their next movie, an adaptation of Kim Barker’s book “The Taliban Shuffle,” a war comedy being referred to as “Untitled Tina Fey Project.” The film stars Fey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton and Robbie.