Dir. Neal Slavin. US 2001 104 minutes.
Based on Pulitzer Prize-wining playwright Arthur Miller's 1945 novel, Focus offers a timely, yet heavy-handed look at the paranoia, fear, and ignorance that fuels religious and racial intolerance. In light of the tragic events of September 11th and the subsequent attacks against Muslim-Americans, Miller's fable of an ordinary Joe who becomes the target of discrimination and violence when he's mistaken for being Jewish, plays like a modern day morality tale. Thanks to some terrific acting by William H. Macy and Laura Dern, the film has some powerful moments. But first time director Neal Slavin tries to cover too much ground, so the film ultimately never delivers that much-needed, final emotional punch. The period drama's subject matter makes it a hard sell, though some good word-of-mouth about Macy and Dern could generate some interest on the art-house circuit.
Lawrence Newman (Macy) is a mild-mannered office worker whose simple, mundane life in World War II America starts to unravel when fear prevents him from coming forward as a witness to the brutal beating of a Puerto Rican woman by one of his neighbours. His guilt is compounded further when an attractive, self-assured blonde named Gertrude Hart (Dern) chews him out for refusing to hire her as a typist because he thinks she's Jewish (even though she's not).
The tables are soon turned on Lawrence when he dons a new set of round eyeglasses, which, as his mother observes, make him look Jewish. Suddenly, he's being demoted at work despite his twenty years of service, and getting the evil eye from his anti-semitic neighbours, who have launched a campaign to drive a local Jewish merchant (David Paymer) off the block. After being repeatedly turned down by "Gentile Only" companies, he lands a job thanks to a forgiving Gertrude, who becomes his wife and ally as he slowly gains the courage to confront his oppressors.
Screenwriter Kendrew Lascelles' failure to fully tie the story's narrative threads together becomes problematic, particularly if we are expected to follow Lawrence's transformation from a silent xenophobe to a man who is ready to speak out against social injustice. He is haunted by the brutal assault he witnesses outside his bedroom window, yet this life-altering event is quickly put on the backburner in favour of his relationship with Gertrude. But their relationship remains underdeveloped, and as she starts to play a more integral role in his transformation, what exactly she knows and understands about the Unicorn Crusaders, a group of anti-semitic thugs that are taking over their neighbourhood, is never sufficiently explained.
In the tradition of 40's film noir, Slavin, a photographer by trade, effectively employs an expressionistic visual style, complete with skewed camera angle and chiaroscuro lighting, to enhance the story's surreal tone. With the help of Juan Ruiz-Anchia's moody cinematography and Vlasta Svoboda's production design, Slavin turns a seemingly quiet, orderly residential Brooklyn street into an eerie, claustrophobic, nightmarish world. Unfortunately, the film's visual style can't compensate for the script's weaknesses and lack of an overall emotional impact.
Pro co: Focus Productions/Carros Pictures
US dist: Paramount Classics
Prods: Robert A. Miller, Michael R. Bloomberg
Scr: Kendrew Lascelles
Cinematographer: Juan Ruiz-Anchia
Ed: Tariq Anwar
Music: Mark Adler
Main Cast: William H. Macy, Laur