The academic fascination inherent in great writers’ formative or abandoned works is often best left to fascinate academics — a point proven once again by “Focus,” a drama drawn from an obscure 1945 Arthur Miller novel. Though there’s formal interest in seeing many of the playwright’s persistent themes fully present — if crudely presented — in this early story, neither adapting scenarist Kendrew Lascelles nor first-time feature helmer Neal Slavin has found a way to blow six decades’ accumulated dust off what emerges as a stilted, heavy-handed parable about fascistic intolerance. Paramount Classics release, skedded for an Oct. 12 theatrical rollout, will be marginally better served by the ancillar formats that should claim it soon enough.
If it had been filmed during the late ’40s, when Miller saw his first, spectacular Broadway success (“All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” etc.), “Focus” might have endured as an indictment more searing in its bluntness than Hollywood’s rather timorous contemporary stabs at similar ideas (e.g., “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Pinky”). Served up all too straightfacedly a half-century later, however, this pedantic exercise simply comes off anachronistic and obvious.
Scenarist and director set action mid-WWII, though story’s xenophobic social climate, with Jews and Communists freely blamed for dragging U.S. into global conflict, would have been more apt (not to mention effective) if placed in the months or years prior to Pearl Harbor. National patriotic fervor during wartime must be ignored to make plausible the notion of an entire working-class neighborhood in thrall to right-wing anti-intercessionists.
Playing yet another weak, conscience-stricken Everyman, William H. Macy is Lawrence Newman, a 40-ish bachelor milquetoast living at home with an invalid mother (Kay Hewtrey). Severely nearsighted, he heeds an office superior’s brusque advice and gets horn-rimmed glasses. Even Ma remarks they “make you look Jewish.” That alone, it seems, is enough to warrant his demotion after 20 years of service as his firm’s chief personnel officer; the tacitly racist execs now fear Newman will give visitors “the wrong impression.” Ironically, he’d just caved to that unwritten company policy by rejecting a secretarial pool applicant who might or might not be Jewish.
Another not-so-deft irony arrives when protag — having quit his job in protest — finds himself interviewed for a post by the same woman. Leggy blonde Gertrude (Laura Dern) is now office manager at a Jewish law concern in New Jersey. Once he’s spilled out a lengthy apology, she duly gets him hired. A few screen moments later (following one dreadful lark-in-the-park scene that lunges from first kiss to marriage proposal), they’ve married and settled into the Brooklyn row house with Ma.
Meanwhile, however, that particular ‘hood has been turning into a hot-bed of race-baiting incidents. Next-door neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday, slimmed down to look a ringer for Joe Don Baker in a part the latter might have played not long ago) is ring leader for local bigots whose intimidation tactics focus on routing corner newsstand owner Finkelstein (David Paymer). Larry is first pressured to join their strong-arm “Union Crusaders”; then his reluctance is interpreted as racially “suspect.”
Neither Lawrence nor Gertrude is, in fact, Jewish and their persecution no doubt is intended to underline the irrationality of collective hate. But pic renders this conceit all the more strained by casting lead thesps who don’t seem particularly Semitic.
Treading familiar ground, Macy nonetheless elevates the material to a point. Alone among thesps here, his perf acknowledges a Kafkaesque, black-humor potential Slavin would have been wise to deploy throughout.
Dern, too, is best when lending the rather coarse Gertrude some bemused earthiness. Her sexpot wardrobe and slinkage are silly, however, while character’s inorganic contradictions (she’s by turns amoral, high-road righteous, trash-mouthed, a devoted wifey, a crass materialist) remind that creating three-dimensional women has seldom been Miller’s strongest suit.
Paymer is stuck sustaining a single, guilt-tripping “I told you so” expression as the script’s poster child for ethnic persecution. Other roles are conceived, and played, as depthless archetypes.
Shot in Toronto, feature does an OK job evoking the period on modest means. A well-known still photographer, Slavin has lenser Juan Ruiz-Anchia and production designer Vlasta Svoboda drench images in somewhat fussy, heightened coloration; occasional scenes (especially Newman’s nightmares) flirt with retro cinematic expressionism. But pic could have used more stylization to lend its earnest, dated material an allegorical tenor.
There’s nothing at all “period” about Mark Adler’s score, which is not the first but certainly among the most egregious ripoffs to date of Thomas Newman’s influential ’95 “Unstrung Heroes” soundtrack.