Eyeglasses. That's all it took to change Lawrence Newman's life, a new pair
of round, black, horn rimmed eyeglasses with coke bottle lenses that made
his eyes look like fish eyes. With these, he was instantly and incorrectly
labeled as Jewish in the mid-1940s when anti-Semitism was running rampant in
a Norman Rockwell America.
The problems and strengths of Neal Slavin's FOCUS are immediately obvious.
The colorful sets and cinematography possess a PLEASANTVILLE-like lushness.
The acting by William H. Macy as Lawrence and Laura Dern as Lawrence's wife,
Gertrude, is superb, the directing is precise and the production is
gorgeous. Kendrew Lascelles's script, however, which is based on an Arthur
Miller novel, feels rather like one long Sunday school lesson. Make no
mistake, the anti-racism theme is a good one, but the constantly moralizing
story could use some nuance. The world in it is too neatly dichotomized
into the prejudiced, which is just about everyone, and those few being
As the movie opens, Lawrence is working as the head of personnel at an
office building. He spends his days in a raised, windowed office that
overlooks a sea of typists. After he makes the mistake of choosing the
glasses that supposedly make him look Jewish -- I think they make him look
intellectual -- he is demoted to the position of clerk, so he quits.
Although he fights the discrimination tooth and nail by denying he's Jewish,
he never considers a simple change of eyewear as an easy solution.
Gertrude is a stunningly good looking blonde with a short, tight-fitting
skirt and exaggerated sexy walk who comes to interview with Lawrence.
Before they've even had their first date, she asks him to marry her. The
script always seems in a rush to get to the next morality lesson, leaving it
little time for character development outside the main storyline.
Lawrence's neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday) alerts him to the trouble brewing
in their neighborhood. It seems that Jews are moving in. Unless they stop
it, it will be Jews today and blacks tomorrow. "It's our neighborhood,"
Fred admonishes him sternly. "We've got to keep it that way."
Why FOCUS felt it had to be so didactic is a mystery. It's a fine movie
with a good message, which partially self-destructs by constantly trying to
beat its message into our heads.
FOCUS runs 1:48. It is rated PG-13 for "thematic material, violence and
some sexual content" and would be acceptable for kids around 12 and up.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes