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Focus (Neal Slavin) 2001 

Since itís based on a novel by playwright Arthur Miller, itís not that stunning that the Focus feels sometimes far too theatrical for its own good. I donít mean that it all takes place in a few settings or feels boxed in, but rather that it uses allegories and a depiction of character that seem more suited to the stage. Set in America during WWII, the film examines the countryís anti-Semitism that resulted from our countryís involvement in a war to save Jews. Lawrence Newman (jeez, thereís a name from a stage play if I ever heard one), played by William H. Macy, is an average American. He lives in an average neighborhood with average neighbors. The world that exists at the start of the film seems like it has sprung forth from the head of Norman Rockwell. One night, Lawrence wakes up and witnesses, through his bedroom window, a rape in the street outside his home. He doesnít react, but the next day he is told that he should get glasses (get it? He needs glasses because he saw a bad thing, but didnít really see it). When he gets those glasses, however, everyone begins to look at him as a new man. Apparently, they make him look Jewish (huh?). The world begins to turn against him, treating him like a Jew, despite the fact that heís a Catholic. He meets Gertrude (Laura Dern), a woman who is also not Jewish, but is afflicted by the same uncanny Jewishness, apparently since she comes from Long Island. 

That neither Dern nor Macy look at all Jewish is one of the tougher things to swallow here. I think such a shift in appearance could work on a stage, but under the scrutiny of a close-up, we only feel the shift because itís been explicitly stated in the dialogue. Also stagy is the filmís ending. I wonít reveal it here. It functions more as a political call-to-arms than a real resolution of the problems in the film.  The script is a smart one, and isnít afraid to point out the ignorance inherent in racism. When an anti-Jew hate group literally moves in next door to Lawrence, the sense of stupidity in the hatred is pointed out time and again. Still, I think it might have been more effective to attempt to provide more of an explanation for that loathing, no matter how obviously groundless it is. Films like American History X use an actorís charisma as a powerful tool in illustrating how groups of people could buy into such ideas. This movieís face of intolerance is Meat Loaf. Heís not bad in his role, but heís hardly the intellectual threat that Ed Norton is. Despite these missteps, the film works. Macy and Dern manage to create a great deal of chemistry together (and not just because they both survived Jurassic Park movies), and itís especially admirable considering their surroundings. The costumes and period detail are rich. The message, as simpleminded as it might be, is terribly effective, despite an occasional lapse into heavy-handedness. Clearly, there is much to admire here, and because of that, the filmís failures hurt that much more. 

*** 

11/05/01

Jeremy Heilman