Focus Movie Review
Adapted from Arthur Miller's first novel about social perception and discrimination in 1940s America, "Focus" stars the inimitable William H. Macy as a fretful, fainthearted Brooklynite whose fateful decision to buy a pair of badly-needed glasses opens his eyes to the unchecked prejudice propagating in his immaculate neighborhood of adjoined brownhouses.
A very WASPy personnel officer at a publishing company, Lawrence Newman (Macy) has never been comfortable with his boss's policy of discriminating against any applicants who might be, or might just appear to be, Jewish. His barrel-chested next door neighbor (Meat Loaf Aday) also makes him nervous with his talk of joining the anti-Semitic Union Crusaders and running a Jewish merchant (David Paymer) out of the candy shop on the corner of their block. Newman prefers to mind his own business and go through life with blinders on.
But when he puts on his new glasses -- round accountant-style specs with thick black frames -- Newman suddenly becomes the focus of unwanted scrutiny that changes his entire life.
First his overbearing, wheelchair-bound live-in mother says, "You look Jewish. Couldn't you get the rimless kind?" Then his boss demotes him, explaining that "We don't think you make the right impression on people who first come into the office." Soon he's waking up to find his trashcans overturned in his front yard -- just like those of the Jewish shopkeep.
The directorial debut of noted photographer Neal Slavin, visually "Focus" is an enthralling cross between a Norman Rockwell painting and a Dick Tracy cartoon -- wide swaths of primary colors (e.g. red brick buildings) and single-source lighting on idyllic images of Americana. Socially, however, the film reveals the ugly underbelly of the world Rockwell captured in his quaintly blithe Saturday Evening Post covers.
Buttoned up, bow-tied and bespectacled, Macy gives a tremendous performance as an acquiescent man caught in a web of discrimination and malignancy he'd chosen to ignore until it enveloped him. Laura Dern makes quite an impression as well, playing Gertrude Hart, a slinky secretary that Newman turned down for a job because of her supposedly Jewish features. When he quits his job in protest of his demotion, he finds himself on the receiving end of the same bigotry as he applies for work elsewhere -- until he runs into Gertrude again at a Jewish manufacturing firm where she's become a personnel manager herself.
Much to his surprise, Gertrude hires him. Later a romance develops and when they get married, her appearance serves as confirmation of Newman's ethnicity in the eyes of his increasingly intolerant and potentially dangerous neighbors.
Directed by Slavin with an eye for period perfection and astute detail (the most revealing scene in the film consists of several sequential shots from behind nosy neighbors' curtains as they watch Newman walk home hand-in-hand with Gertrude), "Focus" unfortunately suffers from a lack of subtlety. While the characters are refreshingly complex (Meat Loaf is anything but a cartoonishly pat bigot), the film is didactic in its conventional message of tolerance and Slavin seems especially attached to some terribly clichéd symbolism, like the out-of-focus merry-go-round playing spooky calypso music in a recurring nightmare.
A few structural problems also betray the director's inexperience. The romance is rapid and overly dulcet without being clear about what Gertrude sees in Newman. After they get married, "Focus" becomes entirely too focused on driving home its point with a vengeance -- Newman and Gertrude practically never have a moment of quiet normalcy again.
"Focus" is emotionally effective, and the timing of its release is fortuitous to say the least. In the wake of Sept. 11, America could use a reminder that race is not a definition of character nor a standard by which people should be judged. But when the closing credits roll, the picture feels far more like a sermon than the cautionary/historical fable it was intended to be.