Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

Soft Focus

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Focus (Warner Bros.)

If you think of the movies as an extended banquet served by a range of variously talented chefs — now the burgers-and-fries of a summer action movie, now the complicated (and not always successful) flavors of a rich prestige film — sometimes it’s a real pleasure to be served something that tastes more like a palate cleanser or an apéritif, that goes down smoothly without adding any weight. And that feeling is especially welcome at this time of year, after a holiday season full of heavy meals and an Oscar season full of arguments about which bourguignon or gnocchi or paella tasted best.

So I’m happy to recommend Focus, a glossy caper movie starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie as thieves and con artists who might be falling for each other, to anyone who’s had enough of the American Sniper–versus–Selma, Birdman-versus-Boyhood debates but isn’t ready for anything substantial in their place. Focus is pure fizz: not too long, not at all pretentious, lovely to look at, sometimes funny, never dull. You won’t quite figure out all the angles, you won’t be able to decide if the plot quite makes sense — and blessedly, you won’t care enough to argue about it for very long afterward. Just taste, enjoy, and move along.

Smith, America’s most reliable star not so very long ago, needed a movie like this. He’s been taking roles only occasionally of late, chaining himself to mystical-nonsense movies (Seven Pounds, After Earth, a supporting role as the devil in Winter’s Tale) and passing, stupidly, on the Jamie Foxx part in Django Unchained. Focus isn’t going to make a billion dollars or restore him to the A-plus list, but it’s a reminder that, even looking a little older and wearier, he’s still very much a movie star — meaning the kind of actor you watch for his own sake, who can entertain without having much of a character to play.

He’s paired with Robbie, an Australian who put on a Long Island accent and bared everything else to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s blonde-bombshell wife in The Wolf of Wall Street. Here she’s baring (somewhat) less, and her American accent is more generically girlish, but her bombshell status is intact, and she has the charisma to go head to head — and given how often her co-star is shirtless, chest to chest — with Smith. I’m not going to venture an opinion on whether she has real acting chops, but she’ll get more chances to prove it. For now you can tell that she’s having fun, which — along with that aforementioned hotness — is all this movie really needs.

The plot starts with an attempt by Robbie’s Jess to seduce and con Smith’s Nicky, which fails because she’s an amateur who doesn’t realize that he’s a pro. And not just a pro, but a legend, and the leader of the kind of gang that it would be fun to imagine actually exists — a whole gaggle of pickpockets, honey traps, matchstick men, and the occasional hacker, working as a team and cruising from one mark-rich environment to the next.

After some pleading, and perhaps just slightly influenced by how she looks, Nicky takes Jess on as a protégée, bringing her in for a weekend of con artistry at the expense of the tourists, gamblers, and fools crowding into New Orleans for the Super Bowl. They steal, they bond, they sleep together — and then things don’t end happily, and the movie picks up several years later in Buenos Aires, with Nicky running a con involving car racing and Jess mixed up with his client (or mark?), a crooked team owner played by Rodrigo Santoro.

This flash-forward is the point at which some audience members may begin to doubt that the plot’s resolution will be perfectly airtight, and those doubts may be correct. But there’s a lot of fun to be had while getting there — some of it supplied by Gerald McRaney as the team owner’s grouchy, “kids these days” enforcer, some by Adrian Martinez as Nicky’s corpulent, computer-savvy sidekick, and some by a last-minute perspective shift that makes you feel that the filmmakers, no less than their stars, are relaxed and having fun.

I was most grateful, Martinez’s character notwithstanding, to have the computerized element in the con artistry kept to a minimum. The hacker may be replacing the grifter in the real world, but, as far too many movies have demonstrated, hacking is just vastly less interesting to watch than the old light-fingered, fast-talking ways of nonviolent theft. And when you have movie stars to work with, the point is that you want to watch them work — using their larger-than-life charms to part other people from their money, just as you’ve willingly parted with your own.

It is to be hoped that Smith, Robbie, and the moviegoing public all have better movies than this one in their future. But Focus swiped less than two hours of my life, and I was more than happy to let it take me for a ride.

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Soft Focus

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