Focus (April 17/02)
Focus, based on the novel by acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller, tackles a very real social issue but winds up obliterating any possibility of effectiveness with a ludicrous premise.
William H. Macy stars as Robert, a 1950s businessman with a comfortable lifestyle. He's got a job that he likes and lives in a friendly neighborhood. His vision isn't all it could be, though, and after some prodding by his boss, he finally decides to buy a pair of specs. Thick-rimmed and circular, he's happy with his choice - but soon begins to notice something odd. With these new glasses, he apparently takes on the appearance of a Jew. And this being the '50s in New York, Jews were not the most popular people in the world. Robert begins receiving odd treatment, from being forced to quit his job (his boss wanted to move him to a less visible office) to having trash dumped on his lawn. The one bright spot in his life seems to be a romance with a beautiful woman (played by Laura Dern), but she apparently looks even more Jewish than him, so the bad treatment intensifies.
It's a dumb idea - not to mention exceptionally preachy - and despite the amazing acting all around and the surprisingly effective direction, this idea just destroys any attempt the movie makes at being, you know, good. And what's even worse, the character of the Jewish shopkeeper (played by David Paymer) could have been made the focus of the film and the same effect would have been had. We would have seen how badly Jews were treated, but spared the ludicrous premise. This concept would be more at home in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and even then it would have come off as heavy-handed.
It's really a shame, too, because Macy gives one of his best performances here. As a man with a comfortable lifestyle forced to reevaluate his values, Macy perfectly portrays Robert's confusion and growing anger. His shock that a simple pair of glasses could so viciously lead to his downfall - mirrored by stupefied audience members, no doubt - allows Macy the chance to give one of his most versatile performances yet. The rest of the cast, particularly Paymer as the jaded shopkeeper and Marvin Lee Aday (Meatloaf) as Macy's bigoted neighbor, is equally effective.
Focus attempts to make a serious problem palatable for regular joe-types by presenting an everyman who's unfairly mistreated, but the film takes a important issue and trivializes it in doing so.