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Article by Teddy Durgin

Only the first half of Focus comes into view

"Focus," the new movie about con artists falling in love, is really two movies in one. Indeed, it's actually split into two, roughly 45-minutes halves. The first half? Terrific! It's sexy, entertaining, playful, well-constructed and full of character. It's... ahem... FOCUSED! The second half? Ugh. Not nearly as good. It flashes forward three years. The con is not as interesting, the new characters who are introduced are thinner. This second half feels the pressure of topping the first half and tries to be too clever for its own good, throwing in about three twists too many. In short, it's... ahem... UNFOCUSED! My advice? Aw, man, I dunno. I really LOVED that first half, in which Will Smith's master flim-flam man Nicky meets Margot Robbie's eager femme fatale Jess in New York. She tries to run a con on him in a hotel that he sees coming a mile away. Caught and cornered, she pleads with him to train her in the ways of a Jedi criminal, then follows him to New Orleans where he has assembled a team of nearly 30 con artists, pickpockets, fences and other crooks to fleece the city during Super Bowl week. Actually, they didn't get the rights from the NFL, as the League was never going to sign off on a script in which 90 percent of the attendees of the Super Bowl are portrayed as easy marks for everything from identity theft to prostitution. So, it's called... wink, wink... The Big Game in the movie. At any rate, Nicky agrees to let Jess on his team, which also includes the droll, seen-it-all facilitator Horst (Brennan Brown) and Nicky's sarcastic right-hand man Farhad (Adrian Martinez). Together, they run small scams all week leading up to the game that amount to over $1 million. Then, the film moves to its best sequence. Nicky and Jess attend the Big Game and sit in one of the skyboxes. Unable to stop being who they are, they make small, $1 bets between the two of them. Jess sees an overweight man in the crowd as The Wave is going around the stadium. She bets Nicky a buck that the man won't get up when The Wave comes to his section. She wins. A Chinese businessman named Liyuan (BD Wong) listens behind them and begs to get in on the action. So, they start betting on plays. Will the next play be a pass or a run? $10! Double or nothing... will the kicker make the next field goal? In the span of about five minutes, the bet goes from $1 to... all the money that Nicky and his team have earned scamming all week! It's a great scene. And I am totally not going to ruin how it plays out. Suffice it to say, though, Nicky and Jess part ways as a result. That's when you get the "Three Years Later" title card come up. And suddenly we revisit Nicky being hired to run a con in Buenos Aires by Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the millionaire owner of an auto racing team. Garriga wants the next Grand Prix to be fixed so his driver can win it. He and Nicky scheme to have Nicky play a disgruntled engineer eager to sell Garriga's super-secret, breakthrough engine to his main rival. Nicky is to quit the team in a drunken tirade at a fancy cocktail gala. One problem. When Nicky shows up, who is on Garriga's arm? Jess! OK, that's a good set-up. But in order for the second half of "Focus" to work, we have to buy that the once-smooth, top-flight con artist Nicky has - BORING! - fallen in love with Jess. Seeing Jess and Garriga together throws Nicky off his game. He can't quite... focus. Worst of all for the audience, he tells the frequently bikini-clad Jess to - GULP - put some clothes on! The chemistry between Smith and Robbie is good. But it needed to be flat-out great for this all to work. It needed to be Clooney-Lopez in "Out of Sight" or Hurt-Turner in "Body Heat." I wish I could tell you to see this movie and walk out right when the film flashes "Three Years Later." You'll have gotten your money's worth at that point. But the filmmaking here is so slick and the stars so appealing that you'll wanna know what happens next. And THAT is this flick's biggest con!

"Focus" is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.

 

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