Some films fail in interesting ways. Focus has been adapted from a 1945 novel by playwright Arthur Miller, and rather than update it or add some subtlety to what was basically a fictionalized tract, it’s been preserved as though it were one of his great works. (Miller himself co-adapted the screenplay with Kendrew Lascelles.)
Faced with creating a visual equivalent of Miller’s melodramatic social critique, first-time director Neal Slavin achieves a sort of heightened unrealism as the film wavers between Kafka-esque anxiety and stylized mundaneness. The world it presents is as oddly underpopulated as a ’50s TV play, and its subject matter — anti-Semitism — is the only matter at hand. Ostensibly set in Brooklyn in 1944, much of the action seems to be taking place on a well-appointed Twilight Zone set depicting some cursed village where everyone is obsessed with who is and who isn’t Jewish.
The story’s dubious hero is Larry Newman (William H. Macy), a 40-something gentile nerd who lives with his ailing mother and whose comfortable (if hellishly dull) life starts to fall apart soon after he gets his first pair of glasses. It seems the specs make him look Jewish, which leads to him losing his job and achieving a lot of unwanted attention from his bully neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday). Fred is a member of the crypto-Nazi Union Crusaders, and he and his pals spend a lot of time making the world safe for pure-blooded Christians by standing on the corner and glaring at Mr. Finklestein (David Paymer), a local grocer. Larry finds some measure of escape when he meets and falls in love with Gertrud (Laura Dern), another supposedly Jewish-looking gentile.
All of this is even less convincing on the screen than it is in print. In the novel, the glasses could work as a symbol: He puts them on; the real world both comes into focus and begins to focus on him. But in the movie, Macy looks pretty much the same with or without the specs, and everybody’s changed attitude toward him is puzzling.
And Newman himself is too much of a puzzle. At first he seems like one of those decent types who becomes paralyzed in the face of aggression, but when the attacks continue, he adapts a defensively anti-Semitic stance of his own, with a bit too much gusto. By the time his conversion to enlightenment occurs, he seems so malleable that we hardly care anymore. The civics lesson has been bungled.
Despite fine performances all around, Focus ends up being a blurry take on an always relevant subject.
Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Visit the official Focus Web site at www.paramountclassics.com/focus.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].