“Focus,” the new rom-com-con — as in romantic comedy-con artist caper — is an irresistible reminder of all the reasons we first fell for the Fresh Prince so many years ago.
Will Smith comes back from the “After Earth” sci-fi fiasco of 2013 leading with his heart, more vulnerable than we’ve seen the actor since he played the poverty-bound single father in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” And that was nearly a decade ago.
The one responsible for getting the pulse racing is Margot Robbie, the “Wolf of Wall Street” actress more than holding her own. When it comes to charm, his is substantial, hers is effervescent. She’s a perfect match for the most romantic role we’ve seen from Smith. Their chemistry is so combustible the only question is: What took Hollywood so long? And, no, the cliche-riddled “Hitch” does not count.
Co-directors and writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa — who reimagined the male middle-age crisis so entertainingly in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” — use an even lighter touch with this lark. Even on those occasions when the plot threatens to unravel, the game, as one of the film’s high rollers played by BD Wong puts it, is so much fun it is worth the gamble.
When we first meet Nicky (Smith), the well-seasoned and highly successful high-end hustler has gotten a great table at an always-overbooked New York City hot spot. At the bar, a very lovely Jess (Robbie) is looking to lose a drunken louse. Nicky, with an empty seat at his table, is the perfect escape. Or is he a mark?
The “will you pretend to be my boyfriend” quickly turns into “will you come up to my room” and sets off the classic scam involving an unsuspecting male caught in a compromising position. The problem for Jess is that Nicky suspected her motives as soon as he saw her lift the drunk’s wallet and watch hours earlier.
And so begins this frothy, sexy cat-and-mouse affair. As obsessed as they are with the art of the con, they have a hard time not tumbling into bed even as Nicky plays the veteran willing to step in and give some tips to a precocious novice. The scams are Rubik’s Cube complicated, but what keeps you guessing is whether the romantic connection between Jess and Nicky is real or just another con.
Nicky questions the love connection too. He already has commitment issues, so each time things with Jess threaten to become serious, he breaks it off. But like an enticing bad penny, she keeps turning up.
The film is breezy from start to finish. Even the opening sequence is airy, fast-moving shots of Manhattan from high above with Xavier Grobet, who worked with Ficarra and Requa on another quirky rom-con, “I Love You Phillip Morris,” as director of photography.
Like the movie itself, production designer Beth Mickle’s backdrops are constantly shifting to fit the crime. Meanwhile, costume designer Dayna Pink is impressive as a quick-change artist, Robbie’s wardrobe fit for Fashion Week. Nick Urata, who has worked with Ficarra and Requa on earlier films, creates a cool jazzy score that sets the mood for the mind games.
There are two major stings that anchor “Focus.” The first involves New Orleans and the Super Bowl. It’s a complicated mission that entails a massive army of trickers and introduces that funny fireplug, Adrian Martinez, as Farhad, Nicky’s resident computer genius and possibly his oldest friend.
It also brings Jess back into the picture. She’s tracked Nicky to New Orleans and talks her way back into the game, one with so many layers of deception it will keep your head spinning. Once again, the con over, Nicky sends Jess packing.
Flash-forward a few years and the story picks up in Buenos Aires. Nicky’s been hired by Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a major Spanish Indy-style racing team owner, to help damage his main competitor. Gerald McRaney is Garriga’s muscle, and he’s watching every move Nicky makes.
Things become more complicated at a pre-race party when Garriga’s girlfriend shows up. It’s Jess, and her reappearance puts Nicky off his game. Could it be love?
The character suits Smith to a tee, given that his ability to persuade anyone of anything is the linchpin of his work. Though his career began as a rapper, it took the NBC hit comedy “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which began its six-season run in 1990, to establish him as an actor. As a street-smart Philly teen working his magic on the upscale California relatives who took him in, Smith found his sweet spot, and it started a trend — the actor charming his way into high society in “Six Degrees of Separation” or softening up his crusty crime-fighting partner played by Tommy Lee Jones in “Men in Black.”
For Nicky, the actor has toned down his trademark flash and swagger, upped the ante — and the subtlety — by acing the whole falling-in-love thing. The Hollywood stakes for Smith are as high as they are for the con man he plays. As it stands, “Focus” just might be a game changer.
MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In general release