t'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.
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
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.