Based on the 1945 novel by Arthur Miller, first-time director Neal
Slavin's "Focus" is an ironic allegory about two Protestants living in
a small town at the end of World War II who are increasingly harassed
because they merely "look" Jewish. The premise is an ingenious one, and
the film sometimes is quite effective in showing how narrow-minded
prejudice and hatred can skyrocket over time if nothing is done to stop
it. Kendrew Lascelles' heavy-handed screenplay puts a damper on the
proceedings, however, turning what should be a believable tragedy into
an obvious, far-fetched one.
Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) is a low-key man who lives a quiet life
with his fussy mother (Kay Hawtrey) until his boss instructs him to get
glasses for his failing eyesight. Lawrence obediently gets a pair of
black framed spectacles that inadvertently make him appear stereotypically
Jewish (even though he isn't), setting off a chain of events that leave
him without a job and chastised by his own neighborhood of anti-Semitic
bigots. Things only get worse when he falls in love with, and marries,
Gertrude (Laura Dern), a cautious woman who also happens to looks Jewish.
"Focus" is blessed with a thought-provoking plot that is so intriguing,
it occasionally is able to overcome its shortfalls. The dire problems
that Lawrence and Gertrude must face are frightening in their sheer
nonsensicalness. Despite both being Protestant, they cannot seem to
convince anyone around them, including their two-faced neighbor, Fred
(Meat Loaf Aday), that they are anything other than what the close-knit
community believes them to be. Their fears are perceptibly portrayed by
Slavin's sure-footed direction, as well as the stirring music score by
William H. Macy gives yet another revelatory performance that can rank
firmly beside his work in 1996's "Fargo" and 1999's "Magnolia." The
devoted intensity of his acting meshes extremely well with his decision
to underplay the quiet, somewhat passive role of Lawrence. You can always
expect an interesting performance from Laura Dern (2001's "Jurassic
Park III") no matter what the picture, and "Focus" is no exception.
Unfortunately, Gertrude is presented as a somewhat shrill, stubborn woman
who doesn't gain the viewer's sympathy quite the way she was clearly
meant to. In the subtly evil supporting role of Fred, Meat Load Aday
(1999's "Fight Club") superbly brings to life the malice hiding just
underneath the surface of his chirpy, cheerful exterior.
Where "Focus" strays from the path is in the illogical developments of its
story. The idea of two people being falsely branded as Jews in an
unaccepting society is a provocative notion, but having the problem spout
directly from Lawrence buying a certain pair of glasses isn't plausible.
Furthermore, suspension of disbelief must be put into effect throughout,
particularly as the whole town seemingly goes against him and Gertrude
no matter how much proof points to their actual religious beliefs.
Aside from both having Jewish physical characteristics (which really aren't
apparent at first glance), the film lacks a valid connection between
Lawrence and Gertrude. During their first real date, we are led to
believe that they not only fall in love, but start their wedding plans.
Macy and Dern are not to blame, as they fulfill their parts more than
admirably, but screenwriter Lescelles does a lackluster job in setting
up their supposedly close and loving relationship. Since so much of the
drama stems from the pitfalls they face as a couple, this flaw is a
nearly catastrophic one.
With racism still running rampant throughout our society, the serious-minded
issues "Focus" deals with continue to be timely, but the treatment of the
subject is too overbearingly cliched for its own good. As one dilemma
after another is brought up, the film progressively loses its credibility,
until there is very little left to support besides Macy's latest
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman