Movie review: Sorry, Will Smith, try harder

Review Thriller

FOCUS (NC16)

105 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***

The story: Veteran con man Nicky (Will Smith) takes novice Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing, but just as the romance is budding, he breaks things off. Three years later, they meet by accident in Argentina while both are running their own scams on playboy millionaire Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the owner of a racecar team.

This attempt at blending the hustle movie with a romantic comedy could have done with a whole lot more hustle and far less romance.

As it is, the con-game procedural stuff - introducing members of the nefarious team, their slick moves, the code words, nicknames and mind games - plays like a well-made sports movie.

That lightness goes poof when the central couple have alone time, when what is meant to be witty verbal combat between Jess (Robbie) and Nicky (Smith) falls flat.

Making couples speak in a way that is clever, funny and at the same time realistic is a lot harder than it looks, especially when the engine of the movie is the question of whether Nicky can be trusted, both with money and with Jess' affections.

Their exchanges are at best dull and, at worst, irritatingly pointless.

The film asks that viewers accept the sexual attraction as a foregone conclusion, that both are willing to expose their real selves - the gem of highest value to a con artist - because they cannot keep their hands off each other.

That might be so, but that does not mean you can get away with lacklustre dialogue.

The writing and directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa specialise in stories about deeply flawed men who lie for a living. These range from the good (I Love You Phillip Morris, 2009) to the very good (Bad Santa, 2003).

They have a distinctive voice, suited to material with a farcical, bawdy edge, two elements missing from this slick piece of major-budget entertainment aimed at mainstream release.

When Smith's name is in the credits, it becomes less a movie and more a Will Smith project.

The hero must be bulletproof, infallible, sexually irresistible and skates by on looks and charm.

That ego-driven formula might work for his studio, but for the rest of us, he needs to try harder.