photographer neal slavin has apparently wanted to make a film out of Focus ever since he read the Arthur Miller novel in high school. Set in Brooklyn during the second world war, it's about an ordinary man who buys a pair of glasses, whereupon people begin to perceive him as Jewish. Suddenly, he becomes aware of the evils of anti-Semitism and finds himself allied with the Jewish corner shopkeeper as his neighbours' prejudices begin to affect him.
Miller has never shied away from beating readers and audiences over the head with the obvious: anti-Semitism is bad. Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. Miller.
Slavin, whose first film this is, lends the whole thing a touch of the surreal by casting William H. Macy as Lawrence Newman, the man whose life is changed by myopia. You could give Macy a yarmulke, side curls and a big plate of kreplach and he'd just be a midwestern goy with an identity problem. It's like Gentleman's Agreement, when Gregory Peck sets out to experience anti-Semitism; who's going to look at Gregory Peck and think "Jew"?
Nevertheless, there are nice touches throughout. Slavin has a very good eye and comes up with some striking images. It's also hard to fault the performances. Macy, who should at some point play Job, does this sort of role -- the ordinary man under attack by the irrational forces of the world -- better than almost anybody, and David Paymer, best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in Mr. Saturday Night, has a gritty dignity.
Putting those two actors together does set up a strange echo-chamber effect, though, when you recall their scenes together in David Mamet's State And Main -- Macy as the fast-talking director and Paymer as the malevolently blunt producer.
It's a bad sign when you're watching one movie and thinking about another much better movie starring the same actors. Indeed, since Mamet has himself made a movie about anti-Semitism (Homicide), you end up wishing he'd directed Focus, or at least written the script.
It's not that Mamet is incapable of the kind of blunt-instrument thematic manipulation evident in every scene of Focus, but he'd probably have given it a little more snap than Slavin has.
Here's the worst sign, though: I saw this film a week ago, and I can't remember how it ends.
FOCUS directed by Neal Slavin, written by Kendrew Lascelles from the novel by Arthur Miller, produced by Slavin, Michael Bloomberg and Robert A. Miller, with William H. Macy, Laura Dern, David Paymer and Meat Loaf Aday. 104 minutes. A Paramount Classics release. Opens Friday (November 9). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 78. Rating: NN