A cool R&B soundtrack sets the mood for "Focus," starring Will Smith as Nicky "Mallow" Spurgeon. He's the picture of success, the kind of guy who dresses in upmarket couture just to gaze thoughtfully from his hotel-room balcony. When a guy like Nick dines alone in a spacious restaurant, it doesn't take long before a stunning blonde like Jess (Margot Robbie) gravitates to the empty seat next to his.
What Jess doesn't know at first is that Nicky is a confidence man. Their meet-cute leads to a teacher-student relationship -- she's no naif herself -- and then to something more. But is their connection real? Or is Jess just another player in Nicky's game?
That's the ostensible premise of "Focus," written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ("Crazy, Stupid, Love"). The movie's main selling point is an ambience of affluence, personified by Smith, who glides across the screen as smoothly as Steve McQueen in "The Thomas Crown Affair," wrapped in various sleek outfits and sports cars. At its core, though, "Focus" is a hollow counterfeit. It looks terrific -- the cinematography is by Xavier Grobet -- but falls apart even on cursory inspection.
"Focus" pretends to be concerned with matters of the heart, as Nick and Jess part ways only to meet again in Buenos Aires, where she unexpectedly appears on the arm of Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a conniving race-car team owner. There is banter, but little chemistry, between the film's two attractive leads: Smith's Nicky is too unflappably cool, while Robbie's Jess is mostly reactive. A few fine supporting players -- including Adrian Martinez as Nicky's foulmouthed pal, Farhad, and Gerald McRaney as a Blackwater-type goon named Owens -- sprinkle a little spice around the movie's mild center.
A good con-man movie should give us some insight, not only into how a con works, but why. David Mamet's "House of Games," about a suckered psychologist, is an excellent example, as is Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men," an underrated gem starring Nicolas Cage. "Focus" is enamored mostly with lingo, logistics and elaborate ruses, all stuff we've seen in this genre since 1973's "The Sting."
Nicky's advice to Jess -- whence the film's title -- sounds less like a nugget of wisdom than a sales training manual. "You get that focus," he says, "you take whatever you want."