Starring: Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, B.D. Wong
Rated R for Language, Some Sexual Content, and Brief Violence
Ask anyone who the world's biggest movie star is, and it won't take long before someone blurts out Will Smith. He's the Meryl Streep of blockbusters. No matter the budget or the genre, when it comes to charisma and star power, no one comes close.
Playing a likable con man is something Smith could probably do in his sleep, so it would probably surprise you to learn that he's the film's biggest problem. His lackluster performance is not the only reason why this movie sinks within the first ten minutes, but it's certainly the most surprising.
Nicky (Smith) is the ultimate con-artist; he knows all the tricks of the trade, and can lift your wallet, purse, ring without you realizing it. A wannabe pickpocket named Jess (Robbie) wants to learn the tricks of the trade, and after she shows potential, he takes her under his wing. Things get complicated when he falls for her.
This could have been a great comedy, except for one thing: Nicky's nickname (which he hates) is "Mellow." That's not an adjective you'd associate with Will Smith. Smith has more charisma and screen appeal than anyone, but his dramatic range is limited. He does not do very well in low-key roles, and this is why. "Focus" would have been a lot more enjoyable with someone else in the lead.
Fortunately, his co-star, Margo Robbie, is more appealing (I shudder to think of what the film would be had they cast Katherine Heigl in the role). After getting the mother of all big breaks by starring as Leonardo DiCaprio's girlfriend in "The Wolf of Wall Street," Robbie has lied low since, but none of her talent has dissipated. She both outshines and outacts Smith at every turn.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have decided to emphasize the romance aspect of the film over the caper stuff, which is fine by me (they made the positively charming "Crazy Stupid Love" in 2011). The problem is that Smith and Robbie have zero chemistry. Few romances have been more in need of passion and life.
I'll admit that some of the caper stuff is interesting, and there's a twist or two that I didn't see coming. "Focus" also manages to have some legitimate suspense too; it takes place at the Superbowl, of all things, and features an unrecognizable B.D. Wong.
Sorry, Mr. July. Stick with what you know.