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'Focus' filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa go for the unexpected

'Focus' filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa love upending expectations

Movies don't have to be an either/or proposition. They can be both smart and fun, a pleasure without guilt and self-aware without being snobby.

The writing and directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa specialize in something all too rare in contemporary Hollywood, movies that are entertaining but not dumb. Think of their movies as artisanal popcorn.

Their latest is "Focus," a sleek, globe-hopping con-artist caper with a healthy dose of sex and romance and more than just a dash of existential self-reflection from a charming character played by charming superstar Will Smith.

"It's just where we come from. We're both fans of more intelligent movies," said Requa. "We're very influenced by independent film and foreign film, but at the same time, we're huge fans of genre and kind of more mindless fare. It's just our taste.

"It's what makes it fun for us. Ultimately, how the movies we write all start is just a couple of nerds in a room trying to entertain each other. So we're trying to be smarter and funnier than the last thing the other guy said."

By their own count, Ficarra and Requa have been writing together for 28 years. As screenwriters, their collaborations have included the children's film "Cats & Dogs," the definitely not-for-children "Bad Santa" and Richard Linklater's remake of "Bad News Bears." They made their debut as directors with their own adapted screenplay for "I Love You Phillip Morris," and then directed Dan Fogelman's script for "Crazy, Stupid Love." They directed "Focus" from their own original script.

As "Focus" opens, Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) seems at the top of his game as a sharp-eyed confidence man running scams big and small. He takes on Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) as a novice protégée, manipulating her inexperience in a series of cons, culminating in a bold scheme at a championship football game in New Orleans.

He then abruptly leaves her behind, and it is three years until the two cross paths again in Buenos Aires. Nicky isn't sure which side she's on as they both circle wealthy playboy Rafael Garríga (Rodrigo Santoro) for another big score.

Juggling a twisting plot, tonal shifts among drama, comedy and romance, large set pieces and moving the production to Buenos Aires, Requa and Ficarra handle it all with a jaunty ease.

"It's a very ambitious movie. The fact that they wrote it for themselves, I think they designed it almost as a challenge," said producer Denise Di Novi. "It's harder than it looks."

"The thing that people like about the movie the most is that they don't know what's going to happen next," added Di Novi, who first worked with the pair on "Crazy, Stupid, Love." "I think it's counter to a lot of the impulses behind remakes or sequels, because it does work. People are starved to be surprised."

Just as Ficarra and Requa like to upend expectations with their storytelling, they also get unexpected performances out of their casts. Jim Carrey's manic energy was harnessed to unexpected romantic pathos opposite Ewan McGregor in "Philip Morris." In "Crazy, Stupid, Love," they got a bright, movie star-charming performance from Ryan Gosling, and now with "Focus," they pull a moody turn out of Smith.

"We all know Will, and he's … charming. He's just a naturally charming guy," Ficarra said. "And so our whole premise with Will was what if your whole persona was just a total act and we got to see a little bit behind it and you were just really an unhappy guy with bad intentions and then there was even more behind that as to why he was that way."

For Smith, a global box office star in his first leading role since the critical and box office disappointment of his 2013 sci-fi film "After Earth," the opportunity to examine his own persona was intriguing.

"Specifically at this time in my life, as I'm pushing more and struggling more for authenticity and openness and alignment, it was exciting to have a character who doesn't care about any of that," Smith said by phone recently before an appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman."

"I enjoyed going in the opposite direction, from where I was in my life. Going the wrong way, studying the wrong way, helps clarify the right direction."

Once Smith was cast, the filmmakers needed to find an actress who could inhabit the part of Jess, flittering enigmatically across a spectrum from innocent ingénue and damsel in distress to savvy, worldly femme fatale. Robbie, the rising young star seen opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and recently at Sundance with "Z for Zachariah," was an unexpected hunch that paid off again.

"Chemistry is not something you can manufacture. You either have it or you don't," said Robbie.

The 22-year age difference between her and Smith made her reluctant at first. "Everyone was skeptical, including myself, because I thought no one is ever going to believe Will and I as a couple. It's just kind of absurd. And they were adamant I come in and read. I'm not sure what made them decide to do that, but I'm obviously really grateful they did."

Ficarra and Requa are already shooting their next movie, an adaptation of Kim Barker's book "The Taliban Shuffle," a war comedy being referred to as "Untitled Tina Fey Project." Adapted by "30 Rock" writer and executive producer Robert Carlock, the film stars Fey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton and Robbie.

Whether working from scripts of their own or those written by others — "the stuff we haven't written is the stuff we wish we'd written," said Ficarra — the two try to bring an air of the unexpected to their films. Which makes the who's-conning-whom world of "Focus" a natural fit.

The end credits for "Focus" feature Ray Conniff's so-square-it's-hip take on the tune "The Windmills of Your Mind," a nod to the stylish 1968 film "The Thomas Crown Affair," which made the song famous. That sense of playful acknowledgment, a casual but considered gesture, also gets to the heart of what the duo was up to by turning attention to the witty fun of "Focus."

"We just felt like there hadn't been a movie like that in a while," said Requa. "It's nice when you're working in Hollywood and there's a movie you'd like to see that no one is making anymore. You make it yourself."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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