Thursday, January 3, 2002

These frames could use tightening

Movie: Focus

Posted on Thu, Jan 3, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.50

Four years before he gifted the American stage with the classic "Death of a Salesman" (1949), Arthur Miller wrote "Focus," a dark novel about a Brooklyn man who enters a maelstrom of race-baiting and social unrest when he commits the fatal mistake of buying a simple pair of glasses.

Though Lawrence Newman (portrayed on film by William H. Macy) is a gentile to the core, the mere act of raising the specs to his face gets him mistaken for Jewish by just about everyone he encounters. It's a ridiculous assumption, yet it's enough to inflame the virulent anti-Semitism that holds Newman's paranoid community in a dreadful grip. The case of confused identity plays havoc with his career, infects his developing relationship with a sexy but tough office worker (Laura Dern) and ultimately threatens both of their lives.

Whatever inner vision Miller had of the material, one can safely assume it did not include Meat Loaf Aday -- the portly balladeer and "Fight Club" graduate. He plays Newman's neo-Nazi next-door neighbor, Fred, in this late-arriving and frequently floundering adaptation. To test Newman's allegiances, Fred/Meat chats up his vigilante group's advancing cause with a hammy foreboding that's sadly emblematic of the film.

"We're gettin' more people in every day," the erstwhile Bat Out of Hell intones, doing what his acting coach told him is called Announcing The Theme.

The Loafster, to be fair, is the mere handmaiden of "Focus'" dalliance with mallet-swinging obviousness. Place the preponderance of the blame on first-time director Neal Slavin and equally green screenwriter Kendrew Lascelles; the two don't yet have the knack of making movies. Their freshman outing kicks into gear with a stagey rape scene that's too close to community theater for its own good, then proceeds toward a saggy middle section that dawdles over Newman's and his sweetie's cloying courtship, leaving the racism plot dangling in the wind. For some reason, Slavin (who made his name as a still photographer) interprets some of the dreamier passages as video footage, a tactic that hardly screams 1940s.

The limited success of "Focus" rests on the soundness of Miller's concept and the sturdy performances of Macy and Dern, who find the truth in their far-from-saintly characters. "Nobody makes a Jew outta me and gets away with it," Dern's indignant Gertrude declares, putting us on notice that this tale's de facto heroes would be sorely out of place among the United Colors of Benetton.

Flashes of sly humor lighten the load. Even Newman's mother subscribes to the oddball notion that her four-eyed sonny is a dead ringer for a member of the chosen people. To us, William H. Macy in glasses looks uncannily like William H. Macy in glasses. I'll give Slavin and Lascelles the benefit of the doubt and assume that this hilarious conceit was intentional.


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