Back in his mid-to-late 1990's heyday, Will Smith was the undisputed box office king. At a certain point, the Fourth of July weekend seemed to be reserved for the annual big-budget blockbuster, like "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," that was built around the actor's unique brand of wise-cracking charm.
But in recent years, Smith has shifted his focus, choosing instead to cultivate his serious side (aside from a forgettable second sequel to "Men in Black") in ponderous films in the mold of "Seven Pounds," "The Pursuit of Happyness," and the sci-fi disaster that was "After Earth." A pleasingly lightweight crime-romance, "Focus" marks the re-emergence of Will Smith: Movie Star, and though it's not quite a return to form, it's clearly a step in the right direction.
Despite an exceedingly forgettable title -- the script spends a lot of time spelling out how focus is a theme of the movie, both in achieving it and deflecting it -- "Focus" is loads of fun; a glossy, escapist fantasy with picturesque locales and pretty movie stars in expensive clothes. Smith plays Nicky, a professional grifter. He meets Jess (Margot Robbie, "The Wolf of Wall Street") in a hotel bar, where they hit it off, sharing casual flirty banter over cocktails, and eventually she takes him upstairs to her room. In the midst of their encounter, Jess' "husband" barges in waving a gun. It's not entirely convincing, and Nicky immediately senses it's a setup. Brushing off her attempt to fleece him, Jess asks him to teach her what he knows. Nicky agrees to take her on as his protégé, adding her to his crew of pickpockets, forgers, and thieves. And it's not long before they're entangled romantically as well.
"Focus" doesn't spend its time building toward some large, overarching caper, instead it presents us with several smaller schemes and moves on to the next so quickly that there's no time to get bored. Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ("Crazy, Stupid, Love") don't spend much time explaining the specifics of these cons, because even more than most movies if its kind, they don't matter. But by keeping us on the outside, waiting to find out the trick once it's been accomplished, isn't as involving as if we'd been invited along for the ride.
The film does give us some wonderful sequences, like the montage of Nicky's crew stealing wallets and purses in the French Quarter. Sleight-of-hand artist and self-described "gentlemen thief" Apollo Robbins is credited as a consultant for these scenes of deception, and they're thrilling to watch. They make it look so easy that you want to go out and try picking a few pockets yourself.
Things then move to the skybox at the Superdome, where Nicky makes a series of frivolous bets on the Super Bowl, against a Chinese businessman (B.D. Wong having a blast) who can't get enough. The film's final (though by far least interesting) heist is set in Buenos Aires in the world of Formula 1 racing. Throughout it all, the relationship between Nicky and Jess always takes center stage. As they circle one another, we are asked to consider the question of honor among thieves and whether two people who steal for a living can ever really trust someone else.
Smith remains as charming as ever, while adding a slight sense of melancholy to his portrayal of Nicky. But Ficarra and Requa save the best bits for Margot Robbie, who announces her presence as a real talent. Though she bears a striking resemblance to Jaime Pressly, the Aussie actress makes the biggest impression of all. She and Smith make for an attractive, charismatic pairing, and the fact that they're an interracial couple goes blessedly unremarked upon within the film -- even in 2015 it is sadly all too rare for a major studio film, making it feel all the more like a kind of milestone.
There are also memorable supporting parts for several character actors, such as Adrian Martinez as Nicky's wingman, and best of all, Gerald McRaney doing his best Mike Ehrmantrout as the head of security for the race team owner that Nicky's swindling. McRaney brings a gruff hilariousness to the role; every word out of his mouth is gold.
The third act overplays its hand trying to create a sense of life-or-death stakes as things go wrong, but it's never truly convincing, since by then it's already firmly established that it's not that kind of movie. In the end, "Focus" performs its own sort of sleight-of-hand: It makes for a pleasant enough experience while it's happening, but then it evaporates from memory the second it's over.