Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the romantic caper Focus is that Will Smith and Margot Robbie were hardly in the running for the two lead roles.
Directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa had originally intended to reunite Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, whom they directed in Crazy, Stupid, Love. When Gosling backed out, his character, a veteran grifter named Nicky, was reportedly offered to Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck before Smith got attached. Meanwhile, Stone’s role, a novice named Jess whom Nicky takes under his wing, was rumored to be offered to Jessica Biel, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Olivia Munn, Rosamund Pike, and Michelle Williams before Margot Robbie finally landed it.
Yet despite the unintended pairing, Smith and Robbie work surprisingly well as an on-screen couple. They move sensually through exotic locales, effortlessly polished and impossibly good-looking. They gaze at each other convincingly in bed, and beguile us with their endearing pillow talk. Robbie is particularly captivating, especially when she jokes around with Smith’s partner, the scene-stealing Adrian Martinez. Smith hasn’t been this powerfully charming in years.
The film begins with a meet-cute. Having faked his way into a fancy restaurant, Nicky notices a fellow con-artist at the bar, and allows her to run a scam on him out of professional curiosity. She’s a natural, but very, very green. Nevertheless, Nicky pursues her, and in a dazzling scene of rapid-fire pick-pocketing and slight-of-hand, he shows her the ropes, and eventually brings her into his operation.
This is a “twist movie,” so it would be best not to reveal much more about the plot. But here’s a little spoiler, in the interest of helping you enjoy the film: this is not one of those movies where the partners-in-crime are performing long cons on each other. The plot twists may be whiplash-inducing — oscillating between the breezy deceptions of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the obnoxious implausibility of Now You See Me — but Robbie-long-conning-Smith or vice versa is not one of them.
Underneath all its slick tricks and facile surprises, Focus truly is a love story. It may not be the most sophisticated or original con-artist movie, but its light touch and warm settings are a welcome reprieve from the dead of winter. At its best, the film’s leads are irresistible, their dialogue smartly written, and their world unbelievably stylish. Let it take you for all you’re worth.