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:: Focus

Focus is a well-intentioned film that comes undone with too much earnestness and not nearly enough credibility. It’s the 1940’s, near the end of World War Two and America is getting ready for the return of their boys. William H Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a shortsighted everyman who lives with his wheelchair bound mother and works in an office. He starts to see the world differently when he buys a much-needed pair of glasses that make him look Jewish, even to those who have known him all his life. Suddenly he becomes the subject of Anti-Semitism, he’s demoted, can’t find another job, can’t get a room in a hotel. His neighbours start looking at him funny, and he gets unwanted sympathy from Finkelstein (David Paymer), the Jewish owner of the corner store, as they are both harassed together.

The Kafkaesque conceit of Newman’s persecution because of a simple pair of eyeglasses is never made plausible. The arrival of a trashy blonde played by Laura Dern, who is also constantly and inexplicably mistaken for Jewish is too contrived to ever be real. They’re married before you can say ‘not a chance she’d ever go for him’.

There are many frustrating things in the film. The opening dilemma, Newman’s witnessing of a brutal crime, is never resolved. Despite his newfound bravery he never reports it. His constant refusal to take any action, whilst it’s supposed to be in his character, is never explained. There is a confusing dream sequence of a carousel that occurs throughout the film and seems to be a half hearted attempt at a metaphor of the carousel of racism, or something, that Newman mentions, but it is given no real explanation, and serves no purpose.

Focus is Neal Slavin’s directorial debut. A successful photographer, it seems he didn’t quite know what to do with moving, talking people. Laura Dern is made to wiggle and sashay in s surely unintended comical exaggeration. There is no subtlety to any of the characters. Any subtext is very clearly signposted.

Based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel of the same name and produced by his son, Robert, the heavy handed lecturing on the evils of racism, while they may be timely, are largely ineffective. Everybody seems to be racist except the people on the receiving end. The film is largely humourless and the overwrought emotions, which may have worked in Miller’s heyday, now simply result in a long, slightly guilty, yawn.

Screening at Cinema Como and Classic Cinemas