Back in 1947, Elia Kazan made a film about the topic of anti-Semitism called Gentleman’s Agreement. The screenplay by the legendary Moss Hart told the story of what happens when a gentile (played by Gregory Peck) tries to unearth the extent of anti-Semitism by posing as a Jew. It was one of the first of the post-War “problem pictures.” While undeniably well-intentioned, the film ended up being hollow, shallow and finally, self-defeating, when all of Peck’s romantic problems that resulted from his masquerade are solved when he can finally tell his ultra-WASP fiancee that he’s not Jewish after all. Ironically, Arthur Miller’s first novel, Focus, which told a not-dissimilar story and pulled no punches, already existed at the time of Gentleman’s Agreement, but no one was going to dare to film that. Now, these many years later first-time director Neal Slavin and first-time screenwriter Kendrew Lascelles bring Focus to the screen — and it’s an almost-unqualified triumph. It’s everything Gentleman’s Agreement ought to have been and never got within a hundred miles of. Set in 1943, Focus tells the story of an apparently gentile (the film brilliantly becomes less and less clear on this point) Everyman, Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy), who has spent his life staying clear of any situation that is even slightly confrontational. When the film opens, Newman is awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of a woman being attacked and raped in the street right below his bedroom window. Rather than become involved, he pretends to have seen and heard nothing. Then the next day, his life starts to change when his boss — upbraiding him for inadvertently hiring a Jew — makes him get a pair of badly-needed eyeglasses. These glasses not only force Newman to start seeing the world around him as it comes into focus, but, in the minds of others, cause Newman to look suspiciously Jewish. Ironically, it is these very glasses that cause him — in his last official act at his company — not to hire Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern) because he thinks she’s Jewish. Refusing to accept a demotion (the rationale for which is merely to keep the public from seeing him), Newman finds himself rejected everywhere he goes as he applies for job after job at companies specifying “Gentiles Only” or “Christians Only” in their ads. He finally ends up finding employment — thanks, no less, to Gertrude — at a Jewish company. Soon, he’s married Gertrude — only to find that all his neighbors (headed up by Newman’s next-door neighbor, Fred, in a chilling performance by Meat Loaf) — think she’s Jewish. The issue is brought to a head when his neighbors become ever more entwined with a white supremacist group and want Newman to take a stand against Jewish shopkeeper Finkelstein (David Paymer). With this, Newman finds himself finally forced to take a stand one way or another. It may sound simplistic and even a bit old-fashioned, but in the hands of director Slavin and a first-rate cast, it’s anything but. Slavin – who is best known as a still photographer – gives the film an amazingly rich look with color saturation that resembles nothing so much as early Kodachrome slides, or, to a lesser degree, the romantic, exaggerated three-strip Technicolor of the 1940s. This is surely not accidental, but rather meant — much like the similarly saturated opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet — to set up a visually sumptuous look against which to contrast the ugliness that lurks beneath this romanticized vision. This look adds immeasurably to the power of the film. Unlike many films with a “cause,” Focus works without ever seeming simplistic, because it examines the actual nature of bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. This is brought forcefully home when Finkelstein asks Newman to specifically tell him what he — or any of these people — have against him. The best Newman can do is talk in rambling, vague generalities about supposed unethical business practices. It quickly becomes clear that Newman has no real idea what anyone has against the Jews, and, moreover, that these generalities have no practical application to Finkelstein. In this regard, he — and his neighbors — aren’t even seeing Finkelstein, but rather a vague and wholly abstract idea of what he is. It’s a stunning slap in the face to the viewer — one that extends far beyond questions of anti-Semitism and can be applied to any group that is perceived as “different.” Strangely, the film has taken on new significance in light of the racism and xenophobia that have emerged since the events of Sept. 11, making it more essential viewing than ever. The film’s climax — played against expectations in a moment of quietly shattering intensity — is one of the most emotionally resonant moments in any recent film. Make no mistake, Focus is powerful filmmaking that’s frequently uncomfortable, but that’s as it should be, since the subject itself is uncomfortable — and one that ought not be sugar-coated for the audience.
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