Focus (2001)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Drama, Social Problem Film  |   Release Date - Oct 19, 2001 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 106 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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Review by Josh Ralske

Focus strives for moral complexity on the order of Schindler's List, but it's a claustrophobic, heavy-handed social drama that fails to provide a sufficient historical context for the disturbing fictional events that it depicts. William H. Macy, who plays the conflicted Lawrence Newman, is a good actor, and he manages to suggest Lawrence's basic humanity, which is overwhelmed by jittery cowardice. But it's often difficult to tell exactly where sweaty nervousness ends and affronted decency begins. Newman's fear is justified by his hostile surroundings, but it strains credulity to think that New York City toward the end of WWII was such a hotbed of openly expressed anti-Semitism. The only non-Jewish characters in the film that exhibit any complexity -- that couldn't be described as "evil bigots" -- are Lawrence and Gertrude (Laura Dern), who gain an understanding of the plight of the victims of prejudice only when they themselves are mistaken for Jews. Even if Focus is historically accurate, it fails as drama. The film, based on a novel by Arthur Miller, is unpleasant to watch, not only because its subject matter is intrinsically disturbing, but also because, as directed by Neal Slavin, the treatment is so didactic and heavy-handed. There's also no sense that the nation is at war, other than occasional mention that some men will be returning home soon, presumably to join in the persecution. It's also troubling that the story places much more importance on whether or not Lawrence will join his neighbors in harassing the local Jewish family than on whether or not he will tell anyone that he witnessed a neighbor's brutal rape and assault of a Puerto Rican woman. In engaging in such sloppy moral accounting, Focus loses its power as a polemic, and it's too strident and unpleasant a film to serve as mere entertainment.