Focus begins with Will Smith surveying Manhattan from the balcony of a luxury hotel suite. Rendered in LED blues and firetruck reds, it is a city of glistening jewels. Throughout much of its two-hour running time, Focus seems like a highlight reel for cinematographer Xavier Grobet, a 25-year veteran journeyman cinematographer whose filmography includes the HBO series Looking and the Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre. I kept getting distracted from the story by the beauty of the establishing shots, like the long pan across the Superdome from I-10 in New Orleans, and by the sneaky zoom revealing our hero across a Formula 1 racetrack in Buenos Ares. Warner Brothers dropped $50 million on this Smith vehicle, and in a world of butt-ugly $100 million tentpoles like Dracula Untold, it looks like money well spent. And it's not just the photography: the editing by Jan Kovac, the costume design by Dayna Pink — all of the trades are at the top of their game. Sure, it veers into Matthew McConaughey car commercial affluence porn, but doggonit, it's some good-looking affluence porn!
About the story: Smith is a master con artist named Nicky who meets a young, up-and-coming con artist named Jess (Margot Robbie) when she latches onto him in the bar downstairs from the aforementioned luxury hotel suite. After a meet-cute that involves some heavy petting and a gun shoved in Nicky's face, Jess is impressed enough with what she sees to beg her to take him under his wing. Jess is convincing enough that Nicky agrees, and she joins his elite team of pickpockets and scammers haunting the Super Bowl in New Orleans, where they pull a series of increasingly lucrative cons, from simple pickpocketing to elaborate gaslighting.
Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who co-wrote the 2003 sleeper hit Bad Santa, revel in the intricacies of the cons and the psychology of fooling a mark. Smith's Nicky is like Batman: always better prepared and more clever than everyone around him. Smith has even adopted a Christian Bale-like growl for the role. But this is not supposed to be a superhero movie, and after a while the string of coincidences and doublecrosses that passes for a plot become too much to overlook, even when your focus is distracted by all the well-shot shiny objects on the screen.
Smith cut his teeth in TV, and he's a fine comic, and occasionally dramatic, actor. Focus sees Smith with his movie star mojo jacked up to 11. His personal trainers have had him working overtime, and he's given long speeches, which he mostly nails. And yet, it's not enough to overcome his dramatic lack of chemistry, sexual or otherwise, with co-star Robbie. Chemistry is a weird intangible that can make or break you, especially in a two-hander like Focus. They kiss and roll around in bed enough, but there's never any sense of real passion between the two actors. It doesn't help that Jess is so poorly written that it gives Robbie nothing to work with. She's just supposed to be "the girl" in this story populated by powerful, hypercompetent older men with whom she is always impressed. The movie would be better if she resembled an actual woman instead of a prize in a male power fantasy.
Ficarra and Requa are trying to make The Sting or The Usual Suspects, but their story lacks the former's sense of fun and the latter's disciplined structure. But at least there's plenty of great cinematography to get lost in during the long flat stretches.