A review of  Focus” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for violence, adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

 

 

Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in this self-assured adaptation of Arthur Miller’s controversial 1945 novel of the same name.

On the homefront in Brooklyn, World War II.  Bookish bachelor Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) lives with his mother, toils quietly in a tidy, nondescript office, and scrupulously avoids controversy.  He buys his daily paper from the Jewish bookseller on the corner, and maintains a formal camaraderie with brick row-house neighbor Fred (Michael Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf).  All is well in Lawrence’s orderly universe. 

A new pair of glasses do more than correct Lawrence’s near-sightedness.  The spectacles make him look Jewish, and quick as you can say intolerance, Lawrence finds himself the target of insidious discrimination.  His boss tries to demote him because of his appearance.  Fred joins the Union Crusaders, a homegrown neo-fascist movement, and the friendship turns nasty.  A sultry secretary, Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), who Lawrence had refused to hire on the basis of her Jewish looks, becomes a friend, then a lover.  Social humiliations pile onto random acts of violence, with Lawrence and Gertrude  smack in the eye of the anti-Semitic storm. 

There’s a sense of the surreal to “Focus”.  Brooklyn is awash in crayon-box colors, suggesting brighter, happier times.  But Lawrence’s world is steeped in paranoia – a menacing doom that creeps in like an edgy tulle fog.  His milquetoast manner renders him an exasperating anti-hero – succumbing to a subtle, implied hatred by marking weak moral territory.  The burning question is this: Why doesn’t Lawrence sidestep the situation by changing his glasses to a pair with a less ethnic look?  The answer is that this is literary fantasy;  a dark morality tale about fear, about acceptance, and about non-conformity.

The cast is first-rate, from the well-respected talents of Macy and Dern to the very surprising performance of ex-rocker Aday, who turns small-minded fear into something unpleasantly palpable.