It’s hard to believe now, but back in the ’40s (and even earlier), the Jewish population around the world was actually looked on unfavorably and with great suspicion. This may account for their usage as scapegoats for Hitler’s Nazi Germany and anti-war protestors in the States who blames the Jews for America’s entry into the war. Whatever the case, a lot of young contemporary Americans will no doubt find Neal Slavin’s Focus to be somewhat shocking — not because it brings something new to the subject, but because Jews are so much a part of America nowadays that it’s hard to fathom they were so blatantly discriminated against back then.
Focus stars the always-affable William H. Macy as Lawrence Newman, a human resources manager whose life is nearly ruined when, at the advice of his boss, he gets glasses to help with his vision problem. Newman, you see, has been hesitant to get glasses, mostly because he knows it will make him “look” like a Jew. And as predicted, the appearance of eyeglasses on Newman suddenly changes how the world, including his mother, sees him.
Suddenly thrust into a categorization he wasn’t prepared for, Newman must battle his own prejudice, innate stubbornness, and a gang of racists who lives right next door to and across the street from him. Add to that the murder of a Puerto Rican woman that Newman witnessed and that the rest of the neighborhood has covered up, and Lawrence Newman is a man at the crossroads of life. Will he make the right decisions and finally see the world for what it is or will he just fumble onward blindly as he used to?
The movie is based on a novel by Arthur Miller, and is more of a spotlight on the problems of being Jewish in early 20th century America than it is an in-depth study of the problem itself. While the film does show the blatant and seemingly unjustified (and even ridiculous) prejudice against Jews — represented in the forms of Newman (who is not actually a Jew, but just looks like one) and Finkelstein (David Paymer), the Jewish corner shop owner — it doesn’t really say anything deep about the topic.
The racist characters, portrayed by singer-turned actor Meat Loaf (Fred) and Michael Copeman (Carlson), are not effective because they are only onscreen for the purposes of scowling at Finkelstein or Newman and seems to have as much intelligence, or education, as rocks. I would say both Fred and Carlson are stereotypes, and as such their characters do not ring true. Villains that have a one-note performance (in this case, to “look” evil in every scene) do not help to shed light on the “heart” of the subject matter.
I would have liked to know the reasons why Carlson and Fred, both neighbors of Newman, hates Jews so much — what was it in their background that turned them into such hateful men that they’re willing to turn on their “good friend” and neighbor just because he got glasses and now “looks” like a Jew? The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to tackle this subject with a brief exchange between Newman and Finkelstein, but the scene (which is much too brief) comes across as weak, especially in light of the fact that the persons Finkelstein should be confronting isn’t Newman, but Carlson or Fred or one of the other dozen scowling “evil racists” in the movie. Why in the world would you confront the only person in the movie who doesn’t hate you? The movie really lost a good chance to showcase the real problems of racism. Instead it lost focus (pun intended) halfway through.
William H. Macy proves once again that he can play the Average Joe as well as anyone, if not better than most. His Newman is completely over his head, unable to comprehend his own feelings toward Jews, but sure — in a simpleminded sort of way — that he’s not like them (the racists). Macy plays Newman as a passive, timid man, but sometimes Newman comes across as much too stubborn in his own belief, which states: If he isn’t a Jew than they shouldn’t be picking on him. It’s such a simple belief, and Newman keeps insisting on it, which does get a little irritating after a while.
As his wife, Gertrude, Laura Dern brings sunlight into Newman’s simple worldview. Dern is good as the slightly trashy Gertrude who, like Newman, keeps being mistaken for a Jew. Gertrude is supposed to be from Staten Island, but her “New York Accent” comes and goes at will, and this was a little amusing after a while. The two actors have good chemistry despite their polar opposite personalities.
Director Neal Slavin likes to linger on tight shots of the embattled Newman’s grizzled face and lingering longshots of Finklestein’s struggles. This gives us a sense of looking at the situation from Newman’s point of view — with Finklestein in the distance, far enough that Newman is “safe” from the man and his problems. Focus’s low budget comes into play when Newman goes into the city, so we’re left with too many scenes of Newman in train cars and subways or in office rooms. The small neighborhood that Newman lives in also looks fake, like the back lot of some studio, which it probably was.
Focus brings focus to the problems of being Jewish in early America (or just looking like one), but unfortunately it doesn’t shed any lights on the reasons behind those problems. Still, it’s something of a shock to see the Jews, who are now so prominent members of American society, be shown as a population on the fringes of American society.
Neal Slavin (director) / Kendrew Lascelles (screenplay), Arthur Miller (novel)
CAST: William H. Macy …. Lawrence Newman
Laura Dern …. Gertrude Hart
David Paymer …. Finkelstein
Meat Loaf …. Fred