The con is on in "Focus," the new caper starring Will Smith as a veteran swindler and Margot Robbie as his disarming protege.
That means, of course, that co-writers and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ("Crazy, Stupid, Love.") are out to take audiences for a ride — but is it an enjoyable one? According to movie critics, "Focus" benefits from a sharp Smith and Robbie, though not all of its scheming succeeds.
The Times' Betsy Sharkey says "Focus" comes as "an irresistible reminder of all the reasons we first fell for the Fresh Prince so many years ago." Smith is "more vulnerable than we've seen the actor since he played the poverty-bound single father in 'The Pursuit of Happyness,'" while costar Robbie more than holds her own. "Their chemistry is so combustible the only question is: What took Hollywood so long?"
Thanks to Ficarra and Requa's light touch, Sharkey adds, "Even on those occasions when the plot threatens to unravel, the game … is so much fun it is worth the gamble."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott similarly calls "Focus" a movie "blessedly free of self-importance. … You may be a few steps behind as the big scams unfold, but you feel more like a player than a sucker. The preposterousness of the story doesn't seem like a rip-off, since the twists in the plot, for the most part, pay off nicely."
Mostly, Scott says, "it is fun to watch Will Smith and Margot Robbie, and to marvel at whatever divine or evolutionary miracle concentrated so much charisma in the two of them."
Some critics felt a bit hoodwinked by "Focus," though. USA Today's Claudia Puig says it's "a muddled and twisting romantic caper that at times feels like Steven Soderbergh lite. Think 'Ocean's Eleven,' 'Twelve' or 'Thirteen' with some of the style and sass, but lacking the clever writing and mesmerizing swindles."
Smith and Robbie, she says, "have individual charisma but lack essential chemistry together. A clever climactic twist, leavened with humor, leaves a more lasting impression than their romance."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr says "Focus" starts strong but can't sustain the hustle. He writes, "To make this kind of byzantine froth work, it takes careful plotting, a magician's knack for what to reveal and when to reveal it, a nose for how much an audience is willing to swallow before it chokes, and the ability to make the simple seem complex. … Ficarra and Requa are attentive and enthusiastic students but not ready for the master class, and 'Focus,' sadly, loses focus."
Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty gives "Focus" a solid B grade but also says it's "slightly disappointing." Unlike sharper con movies, he says, "'Focus' lacks elegance and jeweler precision. Instead of making you dizzy with the kind of smart double crosses that leave you patting for your wallet on the way out of the theater, it just piles on more and more twists, each more implausible than the last." Still, thanks to Smith and Robbie, it's a "sexy, satisfying ride."
Meanwhile, the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday says "Focus" works because it doesn't try to be great. She writes that "this is an instantly disposable movie, arriving in the midst of what is traditionally Hollywood's 'dump' season — but there's much to be said for a film that doesn't overreach, delivers on most of its promises and gets the audience out the door in just over an hour and a half. As Smith's character, Nicky, might say: In, out, nobody gets hurt."