Directed by Neil Slavin
Starring William H. Macy, Laura Dern, Meat Loaf Aday, David Paymer
It’s 1943, and anti-Semitism rules the nation, right along with baseball and propaganda films. Prissy Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) is as Presbyterian as the day is long, until he needs a set of specs. Small, horn rimmed, and as fashionable as wartime allows, they have one fatal flaw: they make him look vaguely Jewish. Not so Jewish that he would have, well, you know, that operation, but bad enough to give his boss pause. After an unfair transfer, he’s out the door and no one else will pick him up because of this, um, ethnic aura. His neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday) runs the local Union Crusade in his neat little working class neighborhood, which is a sort of high class Catholic KKK. It’s join up or move out, as they target local Jews for a mini terror campaign, like corner newsstand operator Mr. Finklestein (David Paymer). Things go from creepy to worse when Newman hooks up with Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), a tall, leggy blonde he had just refused to hire for because she might somehow be thought Jewish as well. I can’t say why, she’s a shiska if I ever saw one, born and bred Episcopalian. Heck, she even sends the wine back at communion. After a work over by the Union Crusade thugs and a rescue by Finklestein, they eventually go to the cops, report everything, and agree that, yes, they might in fact be Jewish. Talk about peer pressure.
Dark and menacing, Focus exudes a constant air of creepy threat. There’s a stream of subliminal images — knives, guns, broken glass, even two frames of text I missed, all building to the climatic street fight that Gertrude warned would happen. Aday is the perfect bohunk amateur thug, and Macy’s a nerd you might mistake as Jewish if your eyes were pretty bad. But Dern, I draw the line at her. She exudes sex, but is completely miscast in this role, much to the detriment of the film. Laura Dern is the goyest woman I can imagine. It’s not just me. I polled every Jewish friend I have, and no one, not one person thought she looked Jewish. Without these two cast members appearing slightly unacceptable to the world, the film falls apart. Macy is marginal for the look needed, but the part Dern assumes is beyond acting – you just can’t ACT like you look like something else. You look it, or you don’t. She doesn’t.