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IN SHORT: A strong drama about prejudice. [Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence and some sexual content. 104 minutes]
When you are small and learn words which are slurs by any other definition, they may not mean much to you. Amongst your peer group, it may be considered cool that you've learned something grownups don't want you to know. Sooner or later, hopefully, you grow up and learn that those words aren't cool. Whether or not it's because you've faced someone slinging one of those words at you is something only you know.
Looks can be deceiving, a point driven home hard by this story of anti-Semitism in the 1940s. The twist in Arthur Miller's original novel is that the victim of prejudice isn't Jewish at all. That doesn't mean that Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) is a Clean Gene. Still single, he lives with his wheelchair bound mom (Kay Hewtrey) in a good, all-American Protestant white neighborhood somewhere in New York City. As the film begins, Lawrence witnesses one of his neighbors rape a Puerto Rican stranger to the 'hood and tells the police nothing . . . probably 'cuz certain people don't belong on his block. Like the kike Finkelstein (David Paymer) that owns the newsstand on the corner, or his relatives that move in with said Hebrew.
We can use that slur because we're Jewish but we won't use any of the others that fill the first couple of scenes of this film. They set the tone and then fade out.
Lawrence and the neighbors, most prominently Fred (Michael Lee Aday, aka the singer Meat Loaf) use slurs as part of their everyday conversation, specifically about the guy on the corner, or the rumors that Italian folk may be moving into the neighborhood. Lawrence isn't as hardcore as Fred. He prefers things the way they are, listens to the racist sermons by the radio preacher Father Chrichton (Kenneth Welsh) and is only slightly embarrassed when confronted with what would be called political incorrectness, if it were fifty years later.
Said embarrassment comes when he's told to fire a particular employee -- Lawrence runs the personnel office of a good sized company. A twenty year veteran, he's got respect and a more than likely promotion coming. He keeps the company nice and white and, when an occasional Jew like Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern) slips by him, it's his job to pink slip with appropriate, non-biased words. Gertrude, a stunning blonde, knows exactly what's going on. Even though she says Episcopalian, she won't stay at this company and stomps out.
As for Lawrence, a problem with his eyesight has his boss insisting that he wear glasses, so he does. Unfortunately for Lawrence, he buys the wrong kind of glasses. All of a sudden, to the uberboss of the company, Lawrence looks Jewish. His promotion vanishes and he's demoted to an inside office where no one can see him. Outraged at this treatment, he quits the gig.
And can't get hired at any other company, except for a Jewish firm that hired Miss Hart. Love, and enlightenment, strike in strange ways and both occur here. That's halfway through the flick, which leaves Fred and Finkelstein and a growing unrest in the neighborhood to deal with. A heavy handed group of thugs calling themselves the Union Crusaders is ready to cleanse the block with the help of Fred and a "list" he's compiled. Where Lawrence and his new missus fit on this list is greatly dependent on how cooperative he is with all the other rabble in town. We'll leave all the rest to you.
With "small" budget movies such as this one, it falls on the shoulders of the actors to take whatever the screenwriter has given them and make something more of it. In this particular case, the foundation is a good one. Arthur Miller is one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century and, while we don't make comparisons to the Source Material, screenwriter Kendrew Lascelles gets right to the point. The downside is that this doesn't allow for deeper character or relationship development between the Macy and Dern characters, something which is more than compensated for by the talents of both actors and the support of Mr. Paymer.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Focus, he would have paid . . .
Recommended. As for the source of the slur: When immigrant Jews came to this country and were asked to "sign in" at Ellis Island, most Eastern Europeans were unable to write their names. In keeping with standards of this country, they were told to make an "X" in lieu of signature. The very Orthodox, not wanting to write any kind of Cross made a circle, a kikelah, instead.
Most slurs derive from ignorance and stupidity. That's been the case with every one we learned as a teen. We don't expect that there has been much of a change in the last thirty years.
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