Focus can be cleanly split into two parts. The first half of the movie is all about enumerating a number of scams, watching behind the scenes as a gang of thieves and con artists prepare to work over a particularly lucrative weekend. The second half is mainly about the yearning for a relationship that isn’t actually very interesting. Focus ends up losing sight of its best qualities, the slick filmmaking squandered on a story that take attention away from all the criminal trickery.
Nicky (Will Smith) is a professional conman. He takes Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing while working the crowds with his crew in New Orleans over Superbowl weekend. The two form a real bond, but Nicky walks out on her after the job with no explanation. Three years later, the two run into each other again in Buenos Aires. Nicky is hired by a wealthy racing team owner to work a con on the competition. Jess happens to be with his employer. The work gets complicated as old feelings resurface. Nicky starts breaking all his rules, risking everything in a bid to win her back.
But of course, not everything is as it seems. There are angles being played, and at least one big twist left for the very end. On a pure mechanical level, the plot doesn't really hold together all that well. It involves too many conversations between people that actually know each other, hiding information that would probably be more helpful in the long run. The big twists aren't all that surprising anyway, and the film really deflates as it heads into its final revelations.
And it turns out that the film is actually a love story, the plot built around the feelings between Nicky and Jess. But there isn't a whole lot there. The characters are only very loosely defined. They are con artists, after all, and very little of their true nature is on display at any given time. It becomes difficult, then, to feel much for the two as they risk capture and worse for the sake of a fling that happened three years prior.
There isn't much chemistry between Will Smith and Margot Robbie, anyway. It does not help at all that so much of the film is about the mentor-protégé relationship they have. What ought to come off as flirty lands mainly as instructive. Smith plays Nicky as a smooth operator, which is fine for the most part. But there is little variation to the performance, making the more emotional moments land flat. Robbie is fine as the eager young student, but the part is underwritten, and it's tough to feel much for a character that's mostly there to be one step behind all the time.
Focus really does fall apart in the last half. There, the film seems to forget what makes con artist movies fun to watch. These films are just as much about process than anything else, their main appeal lying in watching these professional ply their craft. The back half of this picture is too much about hiding the true nature of what’s going on, and it mostly ends up making the characters look pretty dumb. Focus is fun enough for a little while, but then it struggles with the basic demands of plot, delivering a mushy love story when it could have been showing us more cool tricks.