The first feature film that Will Smith made as a leading actor was Six Degrees of Separation. In that 1993 movie, Smith played a con artist. The last feature film that writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa made as both writers and directors was I Love You Phillip Morris. That 2010 movie was also about a con artist, more specifically a criminal escape artist. Both those films are vastly better than this one. Mainly, the central characters in those previous films were better as written. This character isn't, which is purposeful, but it feels as if the movie relies more on Will Smith's charm, sex appeal and just overall screen presence. The screenplay doesn't give him much of anything real. Ficarra and Requa give him fake stuff, but this film continually pulls the rug out that the character can never truly stand on his own two feet. This film is built on a house of lies that the character becomes the boy who cried wolf, but, instead of analyzing the boy or being any kind of character study, the film is about trying to fool the audience and after it does so the first couple of times, the final third is totally unbelievable and a chore to endure.
Will Smith plays Nicky, a con artist who meets an amateur con artist named Jess, played by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street). Jess is also a pretty-skilled pickpocket, but she realizes that Nicky is just as good if not better. She also realizes that he's a far better con artist, so she wants to learn from him. He does become her mentor and they seemingly fall in love in the process.
What's surprising to Jess is that Nicky actually has a network of con artists, pickpockets and thieves who work for him. Nicky espouses that the basis of his art of stealing is distraction, or diverting people's attention or changing their focus. The way he runs his operation, it's almost like George Clooney in Ocean's Eleven but more over-the-top. The romance between Will Smith and Margot Robbie is reminiscent of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity, but with no grander purpose.
The problem is that Nicky and Jess aren't really all that likeable. The sense is conveyed that both had very humble if not impoverished backgrounds. Actually, Nicky says his father was a con man too, but his behavior suggests he's always had money, stolen money, but money nonetheless. Nicky does make the distinction that his targets or marks aren't mainly big or high-rollers. His targets are mainly people on the street. We see him and his team working on the streets of New Orleans. Yes, Hurricane Katrina was a decade ago, but plenty of people and a lot of that city are still recovering and to make New Orleans' streets and its people targets of thievery felt wrong. Nicky is clearly no Robin Hood. He's just a selfish, greedy liar.
BD Wong cheers in the best scene of the film
Writer-directors Ficarra and Requa inject a really good con artist sequence in the movie, which works in the moment, but deconstructing it afterwards has it be a totally ridiculous level of twisting and meticulous planning. It's fun in its craziness, but it makes everything that follows untrustworthy and unbelievable, and unfortunately nothing, not even the actors can pull it back. Not even a shocking life-and-death situation is trustworthy or believable after that great sequence.
Smith gets some funny one-liners. He at one point screams, "Where are all the black people?" It's funny because aside from Smith, there are no other black people in this film. Not even Nicky's so-called father is black. There is great Latino representation. Adrian Martinez plays Farhad, the comic relief and Rodrigo Santoro who was also in I Love You Phillip Morris plays the sexy villain. There's also good Asian representation. BD Wong (Oz and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) plays Liyuan, a compulsive gambler who steals the film in the one scene he has, which is actually the only thievery in the film that I liked.
Two Stars out of Five. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.