"Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew." That old line reverberates through Focus, Neal Slavin's doom-and-gloomy adaptation of a 1945 novel by Arthur Miller. The movie's main character, a Caspar Milquetoast given the full please-don't-hurt-me treatment by William Macy, isn't a Jew. But in the America First atmosphere of World War II Brooklyn, he keeps getting mistaken for one. It all starts when he buys a new pair of glasses ' the round, black-rimmed kind that Harry Potter wears. Back in the '40s, these apparently signified intellectualism ' i.e., Jewishness. And before you can say "Oy vay," Macy's Lawrence is being hassled at work and at home. He's asked to transfer to a less visible part of the company where he's in charge of personnel. And when he comes outside one morning, his garbage is strewn all over his front lawn. Like the Gregory Peck character in Gentleman's Agreement, Lawrence is a victim of anti-Semitism minus the Semitism.
The difference is that the Gregory Peck character, a magazine writer, chooses to pose as Jewish in order to expose the bigotry that used to remind some people of Nazi Germany. As for Lawrence, he has Jewishness thrust upon him. And he's not above trying to extricate himself from its grip. When his next-door neighbor (the newly christened Meat Loaf Aday), a foot soldier in an outfit called the Union Crusaders, seeks his support, Lawrence goes along to get along, which involves putting pressure on a storekeeper named Finkelstein (David Paymer) to move his operation elsewhere. Then Laura Dern's Gertrude reenters the picture. Blond and glamorous in a Brooklyn kind of way, Gertrude often gets mistaken for Jewish, although only those doing the mistaking could explain why. Early on in the movie, Lawrence refuses her a job on that basis. They subsequently make amends and, as unlikely as it might seem, marry. And for the Union Crusaders, blind with hatred, that's the final straw.
Blindness and sight get quite a metaphorical workout in Focus, from the title, which strikes me as blurry (focus on what?), to the early close-up of Lawrence's eye pupils, which become dimmer and dimmer until they're finally snuffed out altogether. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then Lawrence's eyeglasses are his window to the world; they help him see things the way they are. And this optometry-is-destiny subtext might be a little much if Slavin didn't keep his own eye on the story's pulpish underpinnings. Kafka's The Metamorphosis as retold by Rod Serling, Focus bangs away at its Jews-are-us theme, but Slavin does a nice job of riding the line between realism and absurdism. "Nobody makes a Jew out of me and gets away with it," Dern's Gertrude says at one point, and only in this movie's topsy-turvy world would a line like that seem both offensive and strangely liberating.