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Paramount Studios presents
Focus (2001)

"You look at me and you donít see me. So what do you see, Mr. Newman?"
- Finkelstein (David Paymer)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 24, 2002

Stars: William H. Macy, Laura Dern
Other Stars: David Paymer, Meat Loaf Aday
Director: Neal Slavin

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, violence and some sexual content
Run Time: 01h:46m:46s
Release Date: March 19, 2002
UPC: 097363403449
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- CB-B C-

DVD Review

Focus is the screen adaptation of a novel by a promising young 1940s writer named Arthur Miller. (Whatever happened to him, anyway?) I admit to not having read it, but I'd wager that it's not a first-tier novel, otherwise Miller might not have written for the stage; unsurprisingly, the movie made from it, while of some interest, is lacking in depth and dramatic tension.

William H. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, an Episcopalian bachelor in his forties who works in personnel and lives with mother. His eyes are weakening from reading all the fine print on résumés, though, and his boss dispatches him to the ophthalmologist's for a new pair of glasses. And his new eyewear alters his appearance sufficiently to lead to his dilemma: as his mother remarks when he first sports his new specs, "You look Jewish. Couldn't you get the rimless kind?"

Newman goes on to suffer the growing indignities that come from being mistaken as Jewish in an anti-Semitic world, and herein lies the central weakness of Focus. Its principal storyline doesn't deal with disliking someone because he or she is of a certain ethnic group, but because that person merely looks as if he or she might belong. (In this respect, it's akin to movies like Black Like Me and Gentleman's Agreement, in which the brave moral stance that prejudice is wrong is learned by someone outside of the group being discriminated against.) Obviously I don't want to seem cavalier about prejudice, which is loathsome in any manifestation, but you probably can't help but wonder why Newman doesn't just get another pair of glasses, or look into getting contacts, or just simply do a lot of squinting, if his eyeglasses are causing so much trouble for him.

Another principal weakness is that it's a movie that condescends to just about all its characters, and the audience is encouraged to wag a shameful finger at everyone on hand. (You can almost hear the filmmakers preaching to us: We're so much more enlightened than these people, aren't we?) The movie doesn't do itself any favors by having Newman's own prejudices remain so deeply ingrained that, more than an hour into the picture, he's still hollering out to the world: "But I'm not a Heeb!"

The single exception to this condescension is Finkelstein, the newspaper stand owner at the corner, who bears the brunt of the abuse in the neighborhood. He's played by David Paymer, who isn't given much to do but stand there and, well, be Jewish, more a symbol than a human being; that of course is another—though very distinct—manner of condescending. Finkelstein's story is the classic one of the American immigrant, coming to this country to seek roads paved with gold, but learning instead the hard truths that it's the work ethic that will get you ahead, and the nativist stupidity of previous waves of immigrants may make life uncomfortable, if not unbearable. (It's the story of, among others, Vito Corleone.) That's a story that's always well worth revisiting, as it rings true for just about every ethnic group and every generation of newly arrived Americans. This tale of the Episcopalian whose glasses made him look Jewish is, in comparison, small potatoes.

Of course racists are ignorant, but here they're portrayed as nothing else; not really paranoid, or uneducated, or sheltered, or anything but monsters. And they're everywhere. Leading the wedge is Newman's next-door neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday), who is part of a group called the Urban Crusaders, which seems sort of like a bund for the 'hood, led by a Father Coughlin-like xenophobic priest; he likes to weigh in against "Zionist greed and Marxist atheism." (Pat Buchanan, call your office.) Newman gets married to Gert (Laura Dern), herself under suspicion of being Jewish, who has previous knowledge of the Crusaders—she knows that Newman's choice is to join, or move. (Fred voices his suspicions about Gert's ethnicity to her husband: "I thought you'd done gone and married yourself a Jew woman!") How Newman contends with this particularly ignorant instance of prejudice is the bulk of the story, and leads to a completely preposterous resolution.

It's hard not to think that the novel is of interest principally as a literary artifact, given that the story isn't really very strong; would there be any interest in this book if its author didn't go on to write such celebrated dramas as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible? I'd bet not, and it's more compelling as a harbinger of things to come than as an accomplished work of art in its own right. To that end, it's easy to see that some of the concerns and motifs that show up in Miller's later work: when Newman quits his job rather than take a demotion, due to his newly Semitic appearance, the one item he brandishes as he leaves the office is his fountain pen, much like the one Biff steals in Death of a Salesman. The Brooklyn row house that Newman lives in could just as easily be Willy Loman's, too. But the insight that Miller brought to Willy's story was a few years off, and Focus lacks much of the clarity and empathy of Miller's best work. (I bet Miller knows it, too, and it's why he didn't do the screenplay adaptation himself.)

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some nasty scratches and bits of debris show up on the image, dramatically reducing the impact of this reasonably well-shot movie. The monochromatic production design and eerie use of dark and shadow look pretty good, despite the external interference.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track is a little sharper and crisper, and would be my audio track of choice here. Dynamics are reasonably consistent, though some of the dialogue is looped very poorly; Laura Dern in particular seems to have been done some dirt in the sound mixing.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The best thing about the featurette (12m:33s) is the interview footage with Arthur Miller, both at his home and on the set; he seems very much to be enjoying his role as Grand Old Man of American Letters. Also interviewed are the director, Neil Slavin; cast members Macy, Dern, and Meat Loaf Aday, the artist formerly known as Meat Loaf; and Robert A. Miller, one of the producers, who is apparently Arthur Miller's son, though he refers to the writer not as "Dad" but "Arthur." (Absent from the interview roster is another of the producers, billionaire and new mayor of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg.) Appended to the featurette, without its own chapter stop, is what appears to be a trailer, in which the former Mr. Loaf is billed as Michael Lee Aday.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Focus is of interest principally as a museum piece, one of the first stories by a great American writer in the process of mastering his craft. But on its own, as a movie or an entertainment, it doesn't fare especially well. If it's Miller time you want, check out the canonical works like Death of a Salesman or All My Sons, or even The Misfits. But with this movie, the focus simply isn't sharp enough.


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