Any movie starring William H. Macy, Laura Dern, and David Paymer is going to be good, even if the three were working from an old sitcom pilot. And you throw Arthur Miller into the mix? It can't miss, one would think. Alas, although Focus, based on Miller's novel, is frequently thought-provoking and well acted, it's not the success it should be.
The central character is Lawrence Newman (Macy), a businessman who's thriving in WWII Brooklyn. He has his own house, a fine job and good standing in the community. And in an environment of increasing anti-Jewish sentiment, he's Gentile.
And he fits the appearance, until he gets a new pair of glasses. In the eyes of many, Newman now looks Jewish, which begins to effect his life. He gets demoted at work, which leads him to quit and on a series of go-nowhere job interviews. The neighbors look at him funny, especially when he's not as boisterous about their effort to clean up the neighborhood of the Jewish element.
The pressure of living in a cookie-cutter world is portrayed with stunning clarity by director/producer Neal Slavin (in his feature directorial debut). A big billboard featuring a happy, well-dressed family dominates Newman's neighborhood, and his first interviewer looks like a game show host, an ominous sign of his troubles to come. The neighborhood alternates between being sunny and smothered in dense darkness -- the lack of variety is stifling. The men even water the grass at the same time.
Of course, no one else wears glasses either. Then again, they don't see the downside of a utopia. Diversity will not be tolerated, and Newman, as much as he hates it, doesn't fit in. The time for being quiet and complacent is over. He either has to join with his neighbors or see things differently, with the help of his local Jewish newsstand owner (Paymer).
It's this kind of coiled-spring, intellectual tension that makes any Miller production a thrill to sit through. Unfortunately, the movie veers from that path continually, starting with Newman's marriage to Gertrude (Dern), a woman he didn't hire because she looked Jewish. There's an absurdly long courtship scene that seems lifted from a different movie, and Dern's character doesn't add much to Newman's predicament, except filling him in on the Christian Coalition and advising him to either move out or join his neighbors. She's more of a football coach than another voice in Newman's strange new world.
Focus also can't maintain the mystery of Newman's hell. He gets beaten by a band of Jew-hating toughs and attendees of an aggressive Christian group meeting, which ruins the movie's portrayal of a cerebral hell and distrustful American society. After seeing Newman endure so much, the violent acts seem that much more unnecessary. We get the point, especially when the movie also deals with an unreported neighborhood rape of a Puerto Rican woman and with Newman's dream of a freakish carousel.
Though dramatically effective, another reason why Focus falls a bit short is that the material feels too familiar. In my favorite Miller plays (such as All My Sons), a character and his principles are put to the test against what is best for the status quo. Focus offers the same predicament, but with little of the eye-opening sociological subtext that made the film version of The Crucible so damned riveting. The Salem witch trials were Miller's protest against blacklisting, but in the 1990s it became a scathing portrayal of America's fascination with sordid legal cases.
In the case of Focus, the contemporary relevance doesn't seem so sharp. Yes, intolerance existed then and now. But that's been preached in the mass media for years, so seeing it again really has a limited effect. In a politically correct world that never lets us forget about anyone's setback, it's awfully tough to make that message worth listening to again.
Down on the corner and out.