DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Focus, and The Merchant of Venice


Title: Focus

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 104 Minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: Paramount Classics; Focus

Director; Writer: Neal Slavin; based on the novel by Arthur Miller


Cast:  William H. Macy, Laura Dern,  David Paymer, Meat Loaf

Technical:  1.8 to 1   Digital

Relevance to doaskdotell site: Anti-Semitism, war home front

Review:  This interesting little film wears several hats.  It comes across in the previews as almost a film noir, and the garish orange and brown colors of the World War II period scenery (in Brooklyn) give an almost David Lynch effect in spots. William H. Macy plays a Mr. Newman, a personnel manager who is naïve about anti-Semitism in his own company and then about what happens when he is perceived incorrectly as “Jewish” himself, especially after he dates a member of that faith.  Eventually he has to defend himself, literally.  Macy may get an Oscar nomination for this. 


Frankly, I  (born in 1943) had no idea that anti-Semitism was that rampant in New York during World War II.  We do know from history that President Roosevelt turned a deaf ear on the problem for a long time, denying the Holocaust and turning away a ship (the 1976 film Voyage of the Damned). In fact, we also know that the Allies were not as diligent about attacking Nazi support for the concentration camps even when the Allies knew about them (the film Those Who Looked Away)


The film shows some interesting scenes of the old-fashioned workplace – the regimentation of a team of typists, the din enough to threaten one with hearing loss. The 1998 film Clockwatchers comes to mind. We have it better now.


William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Sony Pictures Classics, 2005, dir. Michael Radford, 138 min, R) presents Shakespeare’s popular “comedy” that, particularly in the “courtroom” scene, delves into anti-Semetic attitudes common in Europe (at least in Venice) for centuries. Al Pacino plays Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, who demands “a pound of flesh taken from a man...”  I don’t know how complete the text in the movie is; you can read it at

The story is typically complicated, as money was lent through the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to benefit heterosexual aims of Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) and even Lorenzo (Charlie Cox). Both Fiennes and Cox are extremely handsome in the film (as was Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love) and quite virile. Portia (Lynn Collins) will, of course, impersonate a male lawyer in that famous scene—as Antonio has his shirt stripped off so that the pound could be cut out of his smooth chest. The scene rather suggests some of the S&M rituals that might happen in the gay male community today. Well, you can’t draw any blood and… it gets complicated.  The director is not afraid to play the sexual ambiguity card here. One quote that I like is:


“Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”


Michael Radford provides a commentary, “Shakespeare and the Jews,” in the Winter 2005 FLM magazine. Antonio, it seems, does have a rather homoerotic attraction to the enthusiastically heterosexual Bassanio, and Protia’s cross-dressing as a man would have seemed humorous in Elizabethan times. Radford addresses how anti-Semitism can every be “funny” Shakespeare sets up vivid by flawed characters who mishear each other. Using obscure facts about 16th Century Venice and European life, he maps out problems that are truly universal. 


IMDB listed this film as MGM, which may have been the first intended distributor.


Related reviews: Paper Clips is at this link.


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