William H. Macy has made much of his living as a square. He’s tossed around his peculiar brand of golly-gee gumdrops Americana in everything from Fargo to Pleasantville to Jurassic Park III, bouncing around from eclectic indie fare to overcooked Oscar-baiting schlock to blockbuster hooey and always coming back pretty much the same as when he went in.
But it’s always been clear that his Everyman is most fun to watch when there’s something dark balancing out that big toothy smile, something cloudy enough to turn the Beave into Mona Lisa. The gosh-darn-it men of questionable backbone, emotional distress, and ambivalent morality that Macy inhabits in Fargo, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia let him get at the ugly underbelly of all that “gee-whiz,” unearthing a singular brand of middle-class desperation that’s as much a part of American character as baseball and apple pie. He’s not just good because he squirms so honestly; he’s good because you’re so often surprised at where all that squirming takes him, which has typically been to some pretty pathetic, tragic, and depressing dead-ends.
All this makes it even nicer to watch Macy turn in his best work yet, by struggling instead towards righteousness in Neal Slavin’s sobering and invigorating Focus, one of this weak film year’s first genuine accomplishments. Adapted by Kendrew Lascelles from Arthur Miller’s novel of the same name, Focus elaborately examines the vicious anti-Jewish paranoia espoused by a deep pocket of Christian America during World War II, picking a New York neighborhood and, more specifically, one single street as its domestic microcosm. Larry (Macy) and his wheelchair-bound mother (Kay Hawtrey) live on that street, a WASP outer borough oasis untouched by Jewish influence until Finklestein (David Paymer, carrying the weight of a condemned people in his deep-set eyes) sets up a newsstand on the corner. Before long, members of Finklestein’s Jewish family are moving in, and concerned neighbors, led by Larry’s burly, simple friend Fred (Meat Loaf Aday), are calling after-dinner meetings about how to handle this “problem.”
Initially, Larry tries to avoid the issue altogether, steering clear of the meetings and keeping his head in his work, overseeing secretarial hiring at some nondescript Manhattan office where he is told in no uncertain terms not to hire, um, them. Fate steps in when Larry’s boss asks him to get glasses; apparently, his slipping vision is affecting his work. Later that night, when he tries on the round frames he’s picked out, Larry seems little more than vaguely flustered when his mother offers her opinion: “You look Jewish.” This, as you might’ve guessed, isn’t the best news in the world. Unfortunately for Larry, it’s on this axis that his world starts to spin, and in a fit of pre-McCarthy McCarthyism, he finds himself jobless, and, before long, involved with stakes far deeper than that.
Even outlining these building blocks is like writing Cliff Notes for Cliff Notes. There’s so much more ground Focus covers to finish fencing Larry in: a recurrent murder/rape subplot involving a white Catholic male on the block and a Puerto Rican woman; Larry’s fated whirlwind romance with Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), a feisty blonde he turns down for a job because she looks too Jewish herself, and winds up working with, sleeping with, and marrying; the revelation of Fred’s relationship with the violently anti-Jew Union Crusaders; etc.
It’s amazing to watch Macy through all this, pulling off expressive little miracles with his jaw line and the creases in his forehead. Larry is a man who is haunted by grotesque dreams about the machinery of carousels because he is entirely aware of how redundant his circular, joyless life is: near 40, his closest contact with a woman is when he wheels his ancient mother into the sun before he leaves for work. He’s too stressed out and disconnected even to recognize that something’s wrong with being that stressed out and disconnected, and Macy plays Larry accordingly — like a length of coaxial cable in a bowtie and a cardigan.
He’s too stiff and too chickenshit to do anything when, frozen behind the blinds in his bedroom window, he watches the Puerto Rican girl’s abduction, just like he’s initially too chickenshit to fight back against Fred and his cronies, just like he’s been too chickenshit to do much of anything other than what he’s been told for most of his life. Macy has a field day with all the tics and spasms that build inside someone like this, and he shifts effortlessly into the indignation of a man waking up from years of putting his head down to realize how messed up everything around him is, how far gone his passivity has gotten him, and how prejudice and human ignorance can be pretty haunting carousel rides themselves. Macy sneaks up on you the same way the world sneaks up on Larry, and his startling performance carries the film.
Macy’s excellence doesn’t go unmatched. Laura Dern adds a healthy dose of tough Technicolor sexuality as Gertrude. Gert looks like she’s walked into Larry’s story from a different planet, all swiveling hips and low-cut blouses and pillbox hats, and the movie takes on a more human shape once she becomes part of it. Plus, Dern has a good time, lending Focus a sexy breeze and opening Macy up to even more surprises. Gert and Larry’s romance of opposites (she used to act in Hollywood and got left at the altar once by a fiance; he waters his mom’s lawn on Saturdays and “doesn’t do much for fun”) is actually romantic, as tense and unpredictable and sweet and natural as any onscreen pairing’s been in a long time. And Dern keeps Gertrude’s past up her sleeve, showing little by little until we see how deep certain scars go, and how scared of the prejudicial climate she has reason to be.
And if that climate feels creepy and familiar, it should. Focus is strong medicine right now, released to a U.S. public in the midst of its own war, complete with its own gut-check to run through and its own witch-hunting margins to keep an eye on. (You can’t help but see today’s Middle Eastern store owners all over this country every time Finklestein warily stares down the misguided men who think “taking care of” him will solve a problem he’s as removed from and scared of as they are.) The film couldn’t be more appropriate and, ultimately, more hopeful mirrors for where we find ourselves right now. Macy picks the perfect forum at the perfect point in his history and ours to turn his troubled American Everyman into a character piecing together his backbone while stumbling towards the light, square as square can be.