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Drama about anti-Semitism is a fable of another time

Friday, November 09, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Arthur Miller wrote his novel "Focus," about anti-Semitism in wartime America, in 1945. Neal Slavin's movie adaptation premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, screening for the press Sept. 9. Two days later, the world found itself grappling with atrocities committed by terrorists claiming the mantle of religion -- and with retaliation by association against innocents perceived to look like the enemy.


RATING: PG-13 for thematic material, violence and some sexual content

STARRING: William H. Macy, Laura Dern

DIRECTOR: Neal Slavin



So, sadly, the theme of "Focus," now at the Denis and Squirrel Hill theaters, is as relevant as ever. But the movie seems almost oblivious to whatever social progress America has achieved in the past 56 years. This expressionistic tract not only seems caught in a time warp, it hammers away at its repetitive chord like Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the United Nations, to cite an equally dated example.

Samuel Goldwyn's line never seemed so apt. If you want to send a message, call Western Union.

Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) lives in one of a row of identical brick houses on a street in Brooklyn (although the movie was shot in Toronto). He is middle-aged and single, lives with his mother and fastidiously follows a routine on his way to the job he has held for many years -- personnel manager at a company where women sit at rows upon rows of desks, typing who knows what.

It also doesn't hire Jews, although the bosses never put it so bluntly. When a Jewish woman slips through the net and gets hired, Newman's boss suggests that maybe his eyesight is fading. So Newman takes the hint and gets glasses. But now the boss wants to demote him to an office not as visible as his windowed booth looking down on the roomful of typists. He's making the wrong impression, the boss says.

Translation: The glasses make him look Jewish. This doesn't help at home, where his next-door neighbor, Fred (Meat Loaf Aday), is organizing a "neighborhood watch" that seems bent mainly on watching Finkelstein (David Paymer), the proprietor of the corner candy store. He's moving his parents from the Lower East Side into an apartment in his building. There goes the neighborhood.

The only person who sympathizes with Newman is Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), whom Newman once rejected for a job. You might have thought it had to do with the fact that she sashayed into his office in a bright-red dress and a flower in her hair, as if she were Mae West inviting him to come up and see her.

No, it's because -- you guessed it -- everyone thinks she looks Jewish. Funny, Dern doesn't look Jewish. For that matter, Macy has enough of a white-bread manner to have played an Ozzie Nelson surrogate in the movie "Pleasantville." Yes, one of the movie's points is that we shouldn't judge people by their looks. But in its casting, "Focus" is all but begging the question.

In any case, "Focus" keeps piling it on. Almost everything that happens in the film seems motivated by anti-Semitism. The only respite comes when the awkward Lawrence begins courting the brassy Gertrude, which seems so comical and happens so suddenly that it feels out of place against the oppressive atmosphere of the rest of the film.

Slavin uses dream sequences, vivid photography and stark lighting to convey the idea that he intends "Focus" more as a fable than as a realistic rendering. Still, it seems a fable of a different time, when racial and religious bigotry was much more institutionalized in a country far less tolerant of diversity than it is now. The issues are far more complex now -- and were even before Sept. 11. "Focus" doesn't seem to see that.

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