Given the urgency that issues of paranoia, prejudice, and racial profiling have taken on for Americans since last month's attacks, the movie "Focus" arrives at a timely moment. It has overtones now that playwright Arthur Miller couldn't have dreamed of when he penned the original novel in 1945.
The main character is a mild-mannered businessman (William H. Macy) whose friends and associates have anti-Semitic attitudes. He doesn't think very deeply about this until some people get the idea that he looks sort of Jewish himself, sparking events that cause him to lose his job.
After marrying a new acquaintance who's faced the same problem - ironically, he once refused to hire her when she applied to his company for work - he tries to dampen down his bitterness and let the storm blow over. But his ignorant neighbors have gotten steamed up with bigotry against a local Jewish shopkeeper, and he's tempted to regain their trust by joining in their attacks. This places him in a moral dilemma that tests his ethical resources to their limits.
"Focus" was directed by first-time filmmaker Neal Slavin, who's given the somber story a stylized, neo-noir look. Where a less imaginative talent might have gone for kitchen-sink realism, he treats the tale as a philosophical fable about the never-ending struggle between good and evil, rooted in specific events but ultimately as timeless as morality itself. He gets solid support from most of the cast, which includes David Paymer as the imperiled shopkeeper and rocker-turned-actor Meat Loaf Aday as one of the nasty neighbors.
"Focus" would be a movie of genuine social importance if it worked out its ideas as coherently and dramatically as the best scenes promise. The screenplay by Kendrew Lascelles is vague and imprecise about story points and character details, though, and the last scenes come perilously close to preachiness.
That said, "Focus" contains worthwhile messages about the very real dangers of judging others by their appearances, backgrounds, or behaviors. It accomplishes less than it sets out to do, but it's well worth viewing by anyone interested in the regrettably long history of American cultural and religious bias.
Rated PG-13; contains violence and sexual material.