2001, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Neal Slavin. Starring William H. Macy, Laura Dern, Meat Loaf, David Paymer, Kay Hawtrey.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 7, 2001

Lawrence Newman (Macy) is a man living in the shadows, hemmed in by veils of conformity and prejudice. Social acceptance and prosperity ought to be his WASP-born natural birthright, but Newman sadly discovers that appearances are often more powerful than facts. Set in New York City during the waning months of WWII, Focus is based on Arthur Miller's first novel, a controversial story about anti-Semitism. As adapted by screenwriter Kendrew Lascelles and famed photographer-turned-first-time film director Neal Slavin, Focus strives to make its themes of prejudice and its attendant mob mentality into something that resonates broadly in our modern times. The story's American anti-Semitism is a period-set example; however the story's model of how blanket hatreds of particular groups or ideas can spread like wildfire from house to house is a lesson for the ages. Unfortunately, Focus also feels like a lesson, favoring heavy-handed didacticism over more subtle storytelling techniques. By the time the movie's forcedly hopeful ending arrives, we have accustomed ourselves to glazing over the story's pedantic artificiality. The look of the film also suffers from this heavy-handed approach. Slavin's artistic eye favors dramatic compositions and camera angles, which have a greater connection to his fine arts lineage than to motion picture storytelling. Never one for understatement either, rock star-turned-actor Meat Loaf (who uses the surname Aday in his formal acting career) plays the movie's heavy. On the other hand, Macy and Dern are exquisite in the scenes they share together. These two actors, whose characters romance and wed in the movie, lend the piece its only real naturalism and gracefulness. Even though these pros are a joy to watch, the filmmakers couldn't have found more unJewish-looking actors to play these roles of these Christian individuals who are swept up in a wave of neighborhood hatred because their so-called Semitic looks cause them to be mistaken for Jews. Still, these performances, the story's historical origins, and the inherent goodness and contemporaneity of its storyline make Focus a movie worth viewing. Besides, it's the only movie to boast NYC millionaire mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg as its executive producer.

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Focus, Neal Slavin, William H. Macy, Laura Dern, Meat Loaf, David Paymer, Kay Hawtrey

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