There is a golden rule of movie plans that goes double for con and heist films: When the characters spell out their playbook ahead of time for the audience ("I'll pose as a dot-com billionaire while you rewire the security cameras"), something will inevitably go wrong. But when the audience is kept in the dark, the plan will go off without a hitch.
The new con movie Focus — not to be confused with Focus Features, although someone really should have noticed how similar the logos looked — works this rule overtime, layering blueprints on top of blueprints, spelling out one operation only to pivot into a different one at the last second. Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) keep us only just abreast enough of the proceedings to sense that slippery games are afoot, thus building a fun if forgettable romp through a charismatic criminal underworld.
The always-charming Will Smith is back on solid ground with this starring role, his first since 2013's already infamous father-son sci-fi bomb After Earth. Focus finds Smith in full Hitch mode as small-time grifter Nicky, a man in his element with a swagger in his step. Nicky leads a team of thieves into crowded public spaces for tightly choreographed pickpocket operations, and not even those wallets chained to pants are safe. He's as emotionally distant as he is great at his job, which is a natural side effect of the "when people get too close to you, snatch their watches" line of work. It falls to a fellow thief coming in from the cold named Jess (Margot Robbie, an Australian beauty 22 years Smith's junior) to soften him up.
Robbie has a rising profile, fresh off her role as the tart high-life wife in The Wolf Of Wall Street, and she's quite likable here, even though she has little more to do than seem like she's up to something. The early scenes where Nicky shows Jess the ropes are lithe, breezy fun in the vein of The Sting: She swipes a mark's credit card, an associate buys up a storm, then they return it to his wallet before he's the wiser. Grifter terminology is in abundance, like the "Toledo Panic Button" (taking down a partner to avoid being caught in a lie). This being a genre film in the 2010s, the movie also attempts some meta-referential winkery. Nicky mocks the idea that the gang is preparing for a big score "where we all make so much money we retire and get boob jobs." An editing sequence seems to mimic the famous love scene from Out of Sight, until it doesn't.
The trouble with movies about con artists is that because every character is duplicitous, we know they all have tricks up their sleeves and we're constantly guessing the big reveal. The film fails if it's not thinking too far ahead, if the unspoken plan isn't elaborate enough. In Focus, once the team pulls off a ludicrous stunt at a football stadium, suddenly we're in Ocean's territory and the small-time rules no longer apply. The movie is trying to go big, and this is where it stumbles.
Without spoiling too much: A big time and location jump at the halfway mark would, at first, seem to signal a much larger game, a long con, especially when two characters cross paths somewhere too absurd to be a coincidence. But the meager payoff dashes those hopes, so the second half feels like Ficarra and Requa ran out of ideas and just hit restart. As Nicky said, there is no big score — or at least, not one that feels like a satisfying capper to the previous 100 minutes. And the fact that the con artist was telling the truth is the kind of plan it's better to not see coming.