It's unfortunate that director Neal Slavin's earnest adaptation of Arthur Miller's "Focus," a 1945 novel that is the playwright's first published work, is more awkward than convincing, because its theme--discrimination that begins with nothing more than appearance--is especially timely in light of attacks on Arab Americans and Sikhs after Sept. 11.
Miller wrote out of his own experience, in pre-World War II America, with anti-Semitism, a far more overt and widely condoned evil than it is today. Beginning in the 1920s, Detroit's "Radio Priest," the infamous Father Coughlin, began his influential broadcasts that by the mid-'30s were warning listeners of the dangers of an "international conspiracy of Jewish bankers."
Toward the end of that decade, he denounced people who criticized Adolf Hitler, saying that such Americans bred "international bad feeling." Not until Pearl Harbor did Father Coughlin start losing followers, and he was finally silenced by his church superiors in 1942. Slavin, an acclaimed photographer in his feature debut, and his adapter Kendrew Lascelles assume that audiences understand that in "Focus." Father Crighton (Kenneth Welsh) is clearly based on Coughlin, whose inflammatory teachings seep through the entire film.
The point is that Coughlin fanned anti-Semitism, and his followers in turn blamed Jews for drawing America into World War II. Many viewers today may find it hard to believe how intense anti-Semitism could be in a typical American neighborhood, in this instance a street with identical double houses on a street in Brooklyn, circa 1942-43.
One of the houses is the home of William H. Macy's Lawrence Newman, a milquetoast office worker living with his widowed mother (Kay Hawtrey). We meet him as he peers between the slats of his Venetian blinds from his second-story bedroom window in the dark of night.
A hulking man and a woman, appearing to be a Latina, are carousing drunkenly when the man stops being playful and the woman ends up raped and beaten into a coma. Deriving security from routine and determined never to make waves, Newman does not even call the police to come to the woman's aid. What's more, he could identify the assailant.
Newman's life, however, soon falls apart. His boss orders him to wear glasses because of his increasingly poor sight. He picks out a pair that only heighten his nerdy appearance, from which the head of the company decides, despite Lawrence's 20 years with this Gentiles-only company, that he must be Jewish and orders his demotion from his position as personnel director.
Newman quits in outrage, only to find it tough to land a job until he's rescued by a beautiful young woman, Gertrude (Laura Dern), whom he had only recently refused to hire, apparently because her Hester Street address suggested she, too, must be Jewish. Gertrude, truly a forgiving woman, manages to find a spot in the Bayonne company for him, where she has only recently been hired.
As skilled as Macy and Dern are, they cannot make Lawrence and Gertrude's subsequent romance and marriage credible or even that Lawrence has been transformed by Gertrude's love. Gertrude had a disappointing fling in Hollywood, and apparently we are to take it that she's the soiled dove for whom the timid and uptight Lawrence is the proverbial port in the storm.
But World War II was an exciting, mobile time on the home front, full of romantic and professional opportunities for a woman as bright, free-spirited and self-reliant as Gertrude, whose flashy '40s wardrobe suits her to a T.
She is believably goodhearted, but that she could be attracted to Lawrence is never made convincing. That she scarcely makes a ripple when she moves into Lawrence and his mother's home, with its close mother-and-son-relationship and deeply engraved daily routines, seems implausible.
But then, the primary emphasis in "Focus" is really on how the Newmans' next-door neighbor, Fred (Meat Loaf Aday), a virulent anti-Semite and ardent Father Crighton follower, and his pals hold the entire street in their increasingly menacing thrall. Their particular target is David Paymer's Jewish proprietor of a corner soda fountain and newsstand.
We admire this man's courage and understand his disappointment that Lawrence is afraid to stand with him. But we don't know how he manages to hold out against Fred's virtual boycott of his business, no matter how strong his character is. This is a further detriment to the credibility of "Focus," which from the outset relies too heavily on contrivance and coincidence. It's the old curse of characters being manipulated by plot rather than incident and themes growing out of the interplay of fully dimensioned, complex characterizations. The result is inevitably too much message and too little psychological validity.
There is, furthermore, an inherent sexual subtext that Slavin fails to connect with. In his physical slightness and timidity and in her unabashed sexuality Lawrence and Gertrude both might well threaten the beefy, abysmally ignorant Fred's sense of masculinity.
In any event, it's never clear what it is about Gertrude that makes Fred automatically assume she is Jewish and thereby target her and Lawrence just as surely as Paymer's Mr. Finkelstein.
Macy's evolution of Lawrence as a coward who develops into a David ready to take on Goliath is as fine a performance as anything this remarkably versatile actor has ever attempted. But while Macy is persuasive, much of "Focus" is not.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic material, violence and some sexual content. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for mature teens.
William H. Macy: Lawrence Newman
Laura Dern: Gertrude Hart
David Paymer: Finkelstein
Meat Loaf Aday: Fred
Kenneth Welsh: Father Crighton
A Paramount Classics of a Michael R. Bloomberg and Focus Productions presentation of a Robert A. Miller production in association with Carros Pictures. Producer-director Neal Slavin. Producers Robert A. Miller, Michael R. Bloomberg. Screenplay Kendrew Lascelles; based on the novel by Arthur Miller. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia. Editor Tariq Anwar. Music Mark Adler. Costumes Vicki Graef. Production designer Vlasta Svoboda. Art director Edward Bonutto. Set Decorator Michelle Convey. Running time:
1 hour, 44 minutes.
At selected theaters.
Trying to Keep Plausibility in 'Focus'
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