Couture dresses and exotic locales, classy foreplay and suave timing. The razzle-dazzle of old Hollywood courses through the veins of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's Focus, a charmingly self-aware heist movie sweet on the possibility of love. Danger may lie around every corner, but these characters are smart enough to walk the other way, coming at the problem from a different angle with a calm swagger necessary to survive the high-stakes game of being a criminal.
This is the pop fantasy land of Lewis Milestone's Oceans 11 and Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair (not to mention their respective modern updates), an enjoyable and sexy genre postcard about other people living otherworldly lives.
As Nicky, the lifetime grifter whose elaborate network of pickpockets and blackmailers is turned upside down when he meets an alluring new upstart, Will Smith reminds us why he became a star in the first place: charisma and vulnerability. Way back in 1993, he burst onto the Hollywood scene as a debonair con man in Six Degrees of Separation, a role that feels like an origin story for Nicky's brand of flawed yet calculated sleight-of-hand.
Focus begins with an amazingly convenient meet-cute: After a few drowsy helicopter shots of New York City's skyline, angelically augmented by some fitting soul music, Ficarra and Requa let their stars collide. As Nicky eats alone in a swanky restaurant, blonde bombshell Jess (Margot Robbie) moves in for the proverbial kill. Attraction blossoms over wine and smart-ass quips, then she takes him upstairs for an incriminating, compromising situation. Nicky turns the tables on her immediately and thus begins their drawn-out, innuendo-driven relationship where the personal becomes professional and vice-versa.
Energetic and fleet, the film's first half is a training session for Jess. She joins the ranks of Nicky's elaborate crew in New Orleans to help conduct a massive clandestine assault against tourists and adulterers in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. Having the veil lifted on such underworld operations inspires a spark, giving her the space to grow as an artist of thievery. Part of the film's virtues lies in letting the audience in on the con, with the camera seamlessly gliding around bars and gambling dens, watching as each criminal plays her or his role effortlessly.
But Focus shows its true colors during a key sequence set in a lavish skybox overlooking the big game. Anchored by a lurid cameo by B.D. Wong, Jess gets to see the depth of Nicky's charm and deceit in one fell swoop. This jarring shift gives way to the film's breezier second half, set three years later in the car-racing world of Argentina, where, after an extended time apart, the two swindling love birds are reunited during a con involving a game-changing fuel-efficiency formula held by a business mogul (Rodrigo Santoro).
If Smith does a solid job of constantly subverting our trust while smiling, Robbie achieves a sincere balance between witty ditz and knowing femme fatale. Both actors prove to be versatile, especially when they're playing off each other. Whenever things hit a rut in the twisty script, the filmmakers rely on great supporting turns by Adrian Martinez and Gerald McRaney. Focus really isn't about plot mechanics, even though it often claims to be. Instead, it provides a glossy frame for actors to rambunctiously propel off each other in an enjoyably low-stakes game of chicken.
Ficarra and Requa previously made the excellent I Love You Phillip Morris and the lively Crazy, Stupid, Love, two films that work because of the conflict and chemistry shared by their central pairings. Focus, which opens Friday, Feb. 27, might not mine the depths of romantic entanglement with the same success, but it achieves a demure and tactful whimsy that's very easy to appreciate. Razzle-dazzle, indeed.