He’s a seasoned con man who goes by the nickname “Mellow” (played by Will Smith) and she’s an attractive but inexperienced watch snatcher, named Jess (Margot Robbie), with an approach both clumsy and in need of schooling. The first time they see each other, he recognizes the potential, the skill and the danger she possesses. He takes her in, showing her a little at a time, how to use her presence and a silent touch to get whatever she wants, from anyone.
Coming from the writer/director duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who made the sensational I Love You Phillip Morris and the above average romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love), I expected something much stronger than this. The beautiful cinematography and sex appeal of the two leads can’t con us on such a dull movie.
Having Smith, one of the most charismatic actors of his generation, play a character nicknamed “Mellow” wasn’t the greatest idea. Smith’s performance is fine but he appears tired and reigned in. Robbie is much better, giving a striking turn that doesn’t merely showcase her radiance but displays intelligence and depth in her acting.
The colors practically pop off the screen, with every set and location filmed in a way to utilize the rich, gorgeous palette available. I mean this as a compliment: this looks like a Tony Scott film, in that its slick but there is such a striking quality to the imagery.
Otherwise, the story is nothing new and doesn’t offer surprises that are worth the wait. The thrill of con artist movies is to see just how far the filmmakers can go in giving their audience a sleight of hand. Here, I walked away feeling scammed, not tricked. It all builds to an ending somehow both unconventional and unexceptional.
If you’re a fan of Smith’s, as I certainly am, he’s been better. Ever since his dramatic breakout in Six Degrees of Separation, and his terrific performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith has proven to be a major movie star, capable of extraordinary performances. While thankfully not a dud like his recent After Earth, Seven Pounds or MIB 3, he’s still in need of a comeback vehicle worthy of his talent. This is more a showcase for Robbie, though she was just as dynamic and memorable in The Wolf of Wall Street.
I find it odd and more than a little sad that its 2015 and the filmmakers seem uncomfortable with the interracial relationship taking place between the two protagonists. This is nothing new (good luck thinking of any movie where Denzel kisses a white woman or Brad Pitt smooches a non-Caucasian). Still, I was annoyed at how the film clearly presents a powerful attraction between Smith and Robbie and seemingly can’t cut away fast enough from them kissing or spending time together in bed. So far this season, I’ve had to endure the whips and chains freak show of Fifty Shades of Grey, but will not be permitted to see Will Smith and Margot Robbie make love. When it comes to sensuality in mainstream American films, we’re less progressive than we think.
The best scene comes before the mid-point, where we see Mellow’s weakness with gambling exploited by a wily businessman (played by the wonderful, seldom seen B.D. Wong). The mounting tension in this sequence and the manner in which the actors create the heightened excitement and dread in the moment, is exhilarating. It’s the film at its best and most alive.
If you’ve never seen The Sting, Matchstick Men, The Grifters, Catch Me If You Can, The Color of Money, Paper Moon, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or The Spanish Prisoner, you’re better off giving one of those perfect movies a look and avoiding this one altogether.