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Focus
 

In light of recent happenings in the real world, the event in Focus take on a whole new meaning. Based on the novel by Arthur Miller, this adaptation by director Neal Slavin and adapter Kendrew Lascelles centers on Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy, Jurassic Park 3, State and Main) and what happens to him once people begin to think he is Jewish. Focus is a meditation on race, and how one may have prejudices without realizing it. In order to bring this point to the forefront, Slavin must exaggerate the impact of certain actions. This makes them much more dramatic, but also takes away some of the realism. So while trying to make things better, Slavin sometimes makes them worse.

Newman lives in 1940s Brooklyn, and is content with his middle management job. He is nothing more than a cog in a larger machine, and he likes it that way. His new glasses cause people to think he looks Jewish, and their treatment towards him changes. He loses his job, and his neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday, Fight Club, Blacktop), a bigot, begins harassing him. What is odd is that the two get (got) along, and lived next to each other for years. Fred belongs to a 'community organization' that begins setting its targets on Newman. The only person who gives Newman a job is Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern, Jurassic Park 3, Dr. T and the Women). Ironically, in his old position, Newman rejected Hart for the job because he believed she looked Jewish. Fred and Gertrude begin a whirlwind romance that ends quickly in marriage.

Fred's frustrations lead him to Finkelstein (David Paymer, Bounce, Bait), who owns the local newsstand, who happens to be one of the few Jewish people around Newman. Newman's efforts to give Finkelstein advice only serve to show his own underlying stereotypes. Newman's personality is such that he does not want to confront controversy. This only makes things worse considering that the focus of everybody in the town is on him. Slavin wants to show that while Newman thinks he is above the fray, his thoughts still mimic that of the people around him. And Newman is as ordinary as somebody can get (using Macy was a great idea), so what that predict for everybody else?

Slavin falters when he tries to go for broke in the big finale. Because nobody does anything original with it, much of the focus (pardon the pun) is on how the characters in the movie treat those being persecuted. Aside from addressing issues, Slaving never takes the time to present viable alternatives. They present themselves in the story and remain hanging. Because of the aforementioned nature of the movie, may of the characters seem like caricatures. They are not complex, and instead embody one aspect of human nature. Dern's character is problematic, because she has a wealth of information she releases only in trickles, for no other reason that the story demands it released that way. Meat Loaf's Fred comes off as stupid, although he gives a strong performance. Still, one could argue that bigotry is stupid, and that people with such thoughts will think and act like Fred. The one thing Focus accomplishes easily is a feeling of relevance even after decades. Change the oppressed group from Jews to Arabs, and it the movie is a parable about current events today.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 46 minutes, Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, and some sexual content.

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