Neal Slavin’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s early novel–it was written in 1945, several years before “Death of a Salesman”–certainly has an impressive, and unusual, look. Though made on a relatively modest budget, it recreates the period details of 1944 New York (I’m estimating the date from the stray newspaper headlines we glimpse along the way) very nicely; and the pictorial approach, emphasizing sharp clarity, brilliant colors and odd camera angles, is an interesting–if somewhat fussy–visual alternative to a purely naturalistic treatment (sort of Coen Brothers Lite). One of the producers was Michael Bloomberg, and one can only hope that he’ll be able to put the limited resources of the city he now governs to equally good use.
The narrative, moreover, deals with an important, perpetually topical issue, that of discrimination. The mode in which it does so, however, now seems peculiarly dated, embracing an old-fashioned “literary” approach that prevailed in “serious” American works written by earnest liberals like Budd Schulberg, Rod Serling and Reginald Rose in the fifties. (Miller, it seems, foreshadowed the trend.) A quiet, passive ordinary fellow called Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy), who lives with his disabled mother, is a personnel director in a downtown firm with a “restricted” policy against hiring Jews. He follows directions in turning down an attractive but suspect applicant named Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern). But soon afterward, he gets a pair of dark-rimmed glasses which make him look Semitic in other people’s eyes. Soon he finds himself unemployed, eventually finding a job at a Jewish firm where Gertrude works; the two ultimately marry. But things prove unhappy at home. Larry’s next-door neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday) has become a leader of a crypto-fascist group targeting local grocer Finkelstein (David Paymer); and now Larry, a mousy sort who’s declined an invitation to join the vigilantes and who, along with his new wife, looks suspiciously Semitic, becomes their target, too. The central question is whether Larry–decidedly a nebbish, whether Jewish or not– can be transformed into a true “New Man” by standing with Finkelstein against their neanderthal tormentors. (There’s also the little matter of a Puerto Rican woman who’d been raped and brutalized by one of those neighbors–an episode that Larry witnessed from his window but had timidly failed to report.)
The contrivances here are obvious and heavy-handed. The reality of discrimination comes into focus for Newman through the device of his new glasses–a particularly ham-fisted metaphor. (The role-reversal linchpin of the plot, moreover, is now oddly reminiscent of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 “Black Like Me, itself filmed in 1964, and of several of Serling’s “Twilight Zone” teleplays. Once again, Miller was the forerunner, but the fact that his take on the subject is appearing after theirs gives it a slightly antique quality.) When Finkelstein shows Larry his weapon of choice against his tormentors–a Louisville slugger–it’s supposed to carry the implication of true Americanism. And the whole “New Man” artifice is awfully heavy-handed. All these elements are typical of the “serious” Broadway and Hollywood product of the fifties–call it the “Gentleman’s Agreement” syndrome, if you like. Within the context of an authentic fifties play or film, such rather blatant devices can still be powerfully effective–revisiting a picture like “Twelve Angry Men” or “A Face in the Crowd” will make that clear. In “Focus,” however, they come across as outdated and artificial.
There are other sorts of problems, too. The wartime New York neighborhood depicted here is a curiously unpatriotic place; the attitudes exhibited would actually seem to reflect those that were strong in the pre-war era more than those one would have been likely to find in 1943 or 1944. (The showcasing of a rabble-rousing priest called Father Creighton–obviously modeled on the radio priest Father Coughlin–is telling: Coughlin had faded into obscurity well before the forties.) And the lack of subtlety with which the neighbors are depicted is unfortunate: they’re portrayed as the sort of goons that might have been featured in a contemporary anti-McCarthy diatribe, and seem terribly overdrawn today.
Happily, Macy is on hand to raise the material to a higher level; his performance gives the piece weight and texture that it otherwise lacks. The repressed hysteria he conveys is perfect, and he even manages to inject a welcome vein of surrealistic humor the picture could have used more of. (One imagines that a more Kafkaesque spin, such as his performance suggests, would have strengthened the material.) Dern isn’t nearly as fine, showing an unhappy tendency to exaggeration, as also does Aday, who pretty much reprises the bigoted redneck he played in 1999’s “Crazy in Alabama.” (As a side note, if he wants to have a real chance of acceptance as a serious actor, he should probably drop his old musical moniker.) Paymer does what amounts to a sad-sack martyr’s routine; it’s a one-note turn that might be described as “Perpetually Stricken.” Hawtrey, on the other hand, is startlingly fine in her few scenes as Newman’s mother.
One has to admire “Focus” for its noble intentions, as well as its production design and camerawork, which may call too much attention to themselves bu are nonetheless intriguing. For the rest, Macy is the only remarkable element here. “Focus” seems as reflective of the fifties in narrative perspective as it is of the forties in setting; and while that’s great in a film actually made in the fifties, it comes across as an affectation in one released today, however well-intentioned it might be.