Focus

on October 19, 2001 by Paul Clinton
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Doubling as a civics lesson about the evils of intolerance, "Focus" is just too preachy to really register. It's the kind of heavy-handed message picture that's likely to grab some acclaim for tackling a "difficult" subject.

   Kendrew Lascelles' script is an adaptation of Arthur Miller's 1945 book about a couple (William H. Macy and Laura Dern) mistaken by their neighbors as Jewish. Harassed by a shadowy cadre of bigots led by Fred (Meat Loaf Aday), they turn to a Jewish newsstand owner (David Paymer) for solace and commiseration.

   Miller uses a small New York neighborhood as a metaphor for society at large--in the same way the Salem witch trials of "The Crucible" stood in for the McCarthy hearings. To follow through on Miller's theme, Neal Slavin is much more overt, throwing in shots of a neighborhood billboard trumpeting the "American Way."

   The movie is in the vein of "Crossfire," Ed Dmytryk's 1947 noir about three GIs who murder a Jewish hotel clerk. At the time, that theme was radical--Dmytryk was blacklisted as "un-American" for his tense, claustrophobic masterpiece. Fifty-three years later, the topic is not only much less radical, it's downright dated. And cameraman Juan Ruiz-Anchia's romanticized visual style--he soaks the movie in a profusion of color--undercuts the stark subject matter.

   However, Miller's twist of putting a WASP couple into Jewish shoes--to force-feed us the bigotry-can-happen-to-anyone message--gives Macy an opportunity to show his considerable skills. Macy's Lawrence Newman is a milquetoast Everyman; his go-along-to-get-along attitude eventually puts him at odds with the very people he hopes to placate.

   In her wife role, Dern drifts in and out of a nasally New York accent, never seeming to be comfortable with the way the movie blends political drama with cheery romance (in one ill-conceived scene, Dern and Macy splash around in a duck pond in Central Park).

   Composer Mark Adler's rich score, highlighted by the ringing tones of a bowed psaltery, keeps the movie from becoming unwatchable. Starring Laura Dern, William H. Macy and David Paymer. Directed by Neal Slavin. Written by Kendrew Lascelles. Produced by Robert A. Miller. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence and some sexual content. Running time: 106 min.

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