For my daughter’s 10th birthday slumber party—attended by girls whose parents ran the gamut from Ashcroft-conservative to Leary-liberal—I rented THE
GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, a video choice I thought unlikely to offend and very likely to entertain. Imagine my surprise when several of the girls gazed in horror
at the black-and-white images, then asked incredulously, “How old is this movie?” Learning that it was 50 years old, they turned as one away from the screen.
They couldn’t get their minds around the idea that something that old could have anything to say to them, and my daughter watched it alone.
I’m worried about this movie, FOCUS. Its heart is in the right place, but it’s come along about 50 years too late. For maximum appreciation, viewers must keep
chanting this mantra: “This was written in the 1940s.”
Lawrence Newman (Macy) is just an average Joe, doing his job, watering his lawn, and minding his business, when the chance purchase of a pair of glasses
changes his entire life. Basically, these spectacles make him “look Jewish,” a pronouncement that most folks will find rather startling in this day and time. But
FOCUS isn’t of this day and time. It’s set in NYC during WWII, and it’s a story of anti-Semitism so blatant that it runs the risk of looking made up—unless of
course, you lived through it. Younger viewers may find it hard to believe that Newman’s next-door neighbor, Fred (Aday), isn’t trying to start some shit when he
peppers his speech with racist epithets, in public, on the subway, as he tries to get Newman to join in “community meetings” about the “new element” in
Macy’s Newman avoids unpleasantness; he’s no crusading righter of wrongs, a la Gregory Peck in GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, a movie of far more
power, by the way (but less factual brutality; Peck’s character’s experiences of anti-Semitism didn’t include an ass-whuppin’). Eventually, circumstances force
Newman to choose sides. Will he stand with his racist neighbors and join the Union Crusaders? Or will he align with Finkelstein (Paymer), the newsstand owner
on the corner?
Well this is Arthur Miller, American social critic; you can guess where the chips are going to fall. The good news is that Newman and his wife Gertrude
(Dern) aren’t blameless, morally upright straw figures. They squirm and shift and try to go along, within limits, to keep from having to make outright declarations. It
doesn’t work, but it is nice to see folks who unheroically try to just cover their asses. The better news is that the actors are all on their games. Newman is the sort
of guy you’d be hard-pressed to describe if you walked past him, but Macy somehow makes him an indelible presence. During his courtship of Gertrude, he
unfolds like a flower, and when this tentative, emotionally closeted man actually smiled, I reached up and found that my face was stretched in a pleased smile, too.
Dern’s Gert is almost a smarter RAMBLIN’ ROSE—a vaguely trampy woman whose clothing and makeup choices are too overt. I’m a David Paymer fan, so I
was disappointed that he didn’t get to do much other than be righteous. And Meat Loaf—well Eddie’s come a long way.
The bad news:
1) Weird, cheesy-looking editing choices—freeze-frames of Newman on the subway and zeroing in on “restricted” at bottom of a resort’s billboard—that treat the
audience like simple-minded children (This from the guy who edited AMERICAN BEAUTY?) and turn the production into an AfterSchool Special for adults.
2) A tale told with a sledgehammer—anti-Semitism bad; peace, love and understanding good. Miller learned at least a little subtlety after this novel.
3) An exceptionally stagey speech by Newman, as he rights his moral compass and an exceptionally primal, “Why do you hate us?” discussion of anti-Semitism
between Paymer and Newman.
4) Swelling strings as Newman and Gert make their police report, show us that there’s nothing as noble and moving as when white folks do the right thing.
Weighing it all, the scale tips just slightly against FOCUS. I suspect you will be better served by reading the source novel, if you can find it.
—Roxanne Bogucka, an Action Girl!