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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Focus

Starring: William H. Macy, Laura Dern
Director: Neal Slavin
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: October 2001
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Meat Loaf, David Paymer

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Former Cambodian leader and all-around nut-case Pol Pot-- responsible for killing perhaps one-fourth of his own people during his administration--issued an order to murder everyone in his country who wore glasses. He was not a lobbyist for the new Lasik laser treatment that allows you to "throw your glasses away." Though Pol Pot was one of the most myopic rulers of the 20th Century, he simply believed that people with weak eyes could pick rice, no problem, but that those who took the trouble to correct their vision must be readers. If they're readers, then they're intellectuals and if they're intellectuals, they're a danger to his style of government. QED. Wearing glasses could get people in trouble even if they live far from Phnom Penh. There are still some anti-Semites in the U.S. who believe that what you wear on your nose has something to do with your religious preferences: specifically that you're likely to be Jewish. Sounds strange, but then, anti-Semites are mighty strange people.

Arthur Miller, known as arguably America's greatest 20th Century playwright, belted out a novel in 1945 about how one guy in Brooklyn is targeted as a Jew from the time he popped on his first pair of glasses. Winningly adapted from The Great Writer's novel, Neal Slavin's "Focus" gets its heft largely from the casting of David Mamet's favorite actor, William H. Macy, in the role of a quiet, unmarried Christian living in a nondescript Brooklyn neighborhood during the height of World War II. "Focus" looks for the most part like a work that would be dynamite on the off-Broadway stage or on a 36-inch TV rather than the big screen, and the script by Kendrew Lascelles lacks wit-- but then again Arthur Miller has frequently been criticized for a certain clunkiness in his prose and a suffocating case of self- righteousness. Nonetheless, the film works on two levels: on a didactic one to enlighten people about the presence and dangers of hatred; on an entertainment level given the frequent injections of humor supplied by Laura Dern in the role of a seductively- dressed woman and Macy himself as a Woody-Allen style wimp who when confronted by an extremist for his lack of enthusiasm for the cause excuses himself by saying simply "I never applaud."

At a time that hate groups in the U.S. have already carried atrocities such as the infamous Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building and alleged overreactions have been taken by the U.S. government such as that pursued against a cult in Waco, Texas, we are not surprised to discover that our country has a history of zealotry against people who are "different" dating back to the Salem Witch trials, running through the campaigns of the Know Nothing party against immigration, right up to the present existence of skinheads types hiding out in the woods from New Jersey to Oregon. But you may not have known (I didn't at any rate) that a virulent anti-Semitic group carried out activities in my own home town, Brooklyn, New York, during the height of World War II when our country was presumably fighting against the archcriminal of religious hatred in Europe. "Focus" shows us a remarkable transformation of thought by Newman (William H. Macy), a personnel manager overseeing an office of women at typewriters, who is under orders to hire only Christians. (In one scene, the camera hones in on a newspaper's help wanted ad with the caveat "Christians only"--an advisory that I can attest to since I was a little kid during the war and did indeed take note of such un-P.C. material.) He refuses to hire applicant Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern) because the name sounds to him Jewish. She's not.

Advised by his boss to get a pair of glasses, Newman does so and immediately draws dirty looks from his neighbors on the street and even from his mother, who berates him for not getting the rimless kind because "you look Jewish." Assumed, then, to be a Jew by the company president, he is forced to resign his job, meets Ms. Hart once again when he applies for a new job, and marries her. Noting verbal and then physical attacks against the owner of a small luncheonette, Finkelstein (David Paymer), both Newman and his new wife spend the major segment of the story insisting that they are not Jewish. After a dramatic payoff scene, they both change their tune. Listening to their words in the final moments, one can almost see Arthur Miller himself, ramrod straight in his unbending morality, taking on the forces that have often made America anything but the land of human rights.

"Focus" is a powerful, though for the most part responsibly understated and sincere diatribe against the persistence of anti- Semitism. With its reproduction of automobiles from the mid- forties and subway cars with cushions made of straw, the movie looks every bit the period piece that it is. Yet thematically, "Focus" is torn from today's headlines. Filmed in Toronto which stands in for my Brooklyn, Neal Slavin's film is an event which in its low-key style combined entertaining with didacticism so cleverly that adolescents now in high school should be taken to see it as part of their customary field trip experiences. Nor will adults be disappointed.

In his book "Chutzpah," Alan Dershowitz argues that anti- Semitism is all but dead in the U.S. I'm sure he doesn't live in yet another Brooklyn neighborhood, Crown Heights where, while somewhat dormant, the disease springs to life now and then as when a Hasidic Australian scholar visiting the country was attacked and killed simply because of his religion. Oh, anti-Semitism is alive all right, but it festers below the surface. We're not likely to find characters like former radio personality Arthur Godfrey, who had a sign on the grounds of his Florida home, "No Jews or dogs allowed," but given the right circumstances, who knows what could happen? For a current picture that deals with the subject--how an economic depression led to a rise of ethnic hatreds in Liverpool--take a look at Stephen Frears's touching picture, "Liam."

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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