Friday, November 9, 2001

“Focus,” exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington, is a quixotic labor of love: an adaptation of an obscure polemical novel by Arthur Miller (his only novel, in fact), published in 1947 and written between struggles to break through as a playwright. The director is a successful photographer named Neal Slavin, realizing a belated filmmaking debut in his 50s. The book, a parable of anti-Semitic prejudice set in Brooklyn during World War II, made a lasting impression on Mr. Slavin when he read it as a college undergraduate. The rights were available when Mr. Slavin decided it was now or never for his desire to transpose this favorite book. The project put him in touch with Mr. Miller, whose son Robert agreed to become the producer.
Personal gratification aside, “Focus” appears to be an elusive tough sell even with some contemporary factors in its favor. The aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks may have stirred a fresh awareness of the hazards of ethnic or religious animosity. The government has been at pains to discourage reprisals against loyal American Muslims, which might be equated with the alarming situation that confronts William H. Macy and Laura Dern as newlyweds mistaken for Jews on a block seemingly infiltrated with homegrown fascists. In addition, there’s the new “blood libel” in circulation from Islamic fascists: that the Jews engineered the destruction of the World Trade Center and covertly alerted all their co-religionists to vacate the disaster site before the jetliners hit.
Mr. Slavin seems to get engulfed in material that takes too much for granted in some respects and not enough in others. Mr. Macy is cast as a bachelor functionary, an assistant personnel manager named Lawrence Newman who lives with his widowed mother. He acquires a set of eyeglasses that evidently alter his appearance in some slight way that lends itself to the misimpression, at work and in the neighborhood, that he’s Jewish. He quits his job in response to a slight demotion stemming from this error.
Newman’s mother dies, and he inherits the house. He meets and marries Miss Dern, a free spirit named Gertrude Hart. Eventually, the neighborhood fascists, exemplified by a previously cordial next-door neighbor named Fred (Michael Lee Aday), ratchet up the harassment so intolerably that the Newmans feel obliged to make a stand, approaching the authorities and no longer caring if they’re mistaken for Jews.
The generalized aspect of the plot recalls a vintage complaint about Mr. Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”: He forgot to mention exactly what it was that Willy Loman was trying so hard to sell that it seemed to shorten his life. The implication with Mr. Miller is that bigger, loftier issues are always at stake, but sometimes they don’t feel persuasively grounded in a specific set of characters and circumstances.
That’s more or less the problem with “Focus.”
For example, there’s a subsidiary character named Finkelstein, the proprietor of a corner news store, who exists to soak up the lion’s share of anti-Semitic abuse. Played by David Paymer, he is always indelibly Jewish. No ambiguity there. Despite the urgency of his case, however, we’re not invited to share much of his private life or confidence.
Those areas are reserved for the gentile couple who need to discover injustice and intimidation firsthand.
The fact that Mr. Macy and Miss Dern never look remotely Jewish might be finessed if Mr. Slavin’s sense of period were so ominously vivid that it didn’t matter much because the neighborhood was a hornet’s nest of hate that required drastic remedies.
The movie isn’t sufficiently resourceful to make such a case.
There even are bad-faith suspense elements that invite you to suspect Miss Dern’s character of treachery. Another source of disillusion: These two actors seem more comic than melodramatic or polemical when paired.
The thematic and common-sense aspects of “Focus” remain muddled to a fault. The movie never acquires a sharp focus.
It remains a fuzzy call to arms, lost between forms of presentation that suggest a belated outcry and others more appropriate to a reflective period piece.
From either perspective, the result is a thesis movie that seems to need additional drafts and additional immersion in the way things used to be.

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