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film review

The caper film Focus is saved in large part because of its likeable leads, Margot Robbie and Will Smith.Frank Masi

Earlier in his film career, former teen rapper Will Smith said he wanted to be the next Cary Grant, still the epitome of a movie star equally effective at sophisticated comedy or high-toned thrillers. Though Smith has run up a remarkable string of blockbusters since 1996's Independence Day, his chances to play romantic and suave have been rare. He gets a shot with Focus, a high-calorie, low-nutrition caper film, co-starring feline Australian actress Margot Robbie (the one who had Leonardo DiCaprio biting his knuckles in The Wolf of Wall Street). Contemporary audiences are less likely to be reminded of Charade and To Catch a Thief than that other Grant wannabe, George Clooney, in the Oceans movies, but it's a change of pace.

Smith plays a veteran conman, Nicky, who meets Jess (Robbie) in a Manhattan restaurant, where he catches her in a con involving a hotel room seduction and fake angry husband. Impressed, Jess begs to be his student and in a flirty demonstration of his pickpocketing acumen, he strips her of everything from a ring to her Zumba card by pressing into her personal space and making a few quick moves of his hands. (Las Vegas theatrical pickpocket Apollo Robbins gets a screen credit as "con artist adviser, pickpocket design.")

Like a modern day Oliver Twist, Jess becomes an "intern" to Nicky and his crew of grifters and thieves. They hit a fictional football championship game in New Orleans, using everything from credit card fraud to the distraction of Jess in a tight pink dress to skim $1.2-million over the long weekend. As they rake in the take, the infatuated student and flattered teacher strike romantic sparks. For a chaser, they go to the football game together, where Nicky suddenly exposes an apparent wild gambling compulsion in a losing series of bets with a high-rolling drunken Chinese gambler (B.D. Wong, full of oily fun). The outlandish conclusion, as well as revealing a movie that's much less clever than it wants to be, suggests Nicky's squandering telepathic talents that would be better employed making billions on Madison Avenue than in petty grifts.

Three years later, Nicky and Jess meet again in Buenos Aires, where Nicky is about to outsmart the Formula One racing establishment, working for a pretty boy Argentinian playboy race-car owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) selling a bogus fuel-system software to a rival team. The scheme involves Nicky pretending to be one of Garriga's engineers who has a drunken quarrel with Garriga at a big party. To Nicky's surprise, he discovers Garriga's girlfriend is Jess and his old feelings flare, particularly when he sees her poolside at a restaurant in a bikini canoodling with her new boyfriend. Jess sends mixed signals, telling him through moist-eyed glances that she's gone straight and needs him to stay away.

As well, they're being monitored by Garriga's enforcer, a scrappy curmudgeon named Owens (Gerald McRaney, who played businessman Raymond Tusk in House of Cards). The other strong supporting performance here is from Adrian Martinez as Farhad, Nicky's bushy-haired vulgarian sidekick, whose scenes with Jess bring out her less earnest side.

Focus, which was co-written and directed by Crazy Stupid Love creators, Glen Ficarra and John Requa, is drunk on its perfume-ad cinematography and doesn't know when to quit with its double-double cross plotting. Most of the movie evaporates from the mind with the closing credits, except for the likeable leads, who don't so much have romantic chemistry as friendly parity: Robbie is one of those performers who seems to always be on full alert and you cannot keep your eyes off her when she's on the screen. Smith is now a grizzled pro in his mid-40s, negotiating his way down from superhero to human. If he doesn't precisely display Cary Grant finesse, at least he offers a welcome variation on his familiar mix of brashness and self-deprecating humour.