By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 07, 2001 at 4:46 AM

As "Focus," the high-tension new film based on Arthur Miller's novel of the same name, opens, Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) is awakened from his sleep by a ruckus outside his house in a tight-knit Brooklyn neighborhood. Although he clearly sees his neighbor beating an unknown woman, he, like his neighbors, prefers to see nothing and returns to bed.

But during these difficult World War II years societal changes happen rapid-fire and rather than keeping to themselves, Newman's nosey neighbors now demand that sides be taken.

The extremely ordinary Newman, who works as a cog at a Manhattan firm, is unmarried and lives with his mother in a WASPy Brooklyn neighborhood where all of the houses look the same, all of the lawns look the same and difference is not a treasured quality.

In this neighborhood, hate and prejudice are an easy sell. So, it's not surprising that war time xenophobia begins to build there and finds an easy target in Finklestein (David Paymer), a friendly Jewish man who owns the corner grocery and newsstand, a New York institution.

When Newman gets a new pair of glasses at his bosses' request, the pair he chooses makes him "look Jewish," according to his mother. His new look and his apparent disinterest in joining the neighborhood hate group render him a second focus of suspicion.

At work, he is instructed to weed out Jewish job applicants and when the sexy Gertrude Hart walks through the door, Macy is intrigued by her and also frightened because he suspects she may be Jewish. Hart picks up on his unease and reads him the riot act.

So, it is ironic when the firm decides that the newly bespectacled Newman no longer fits the company's image and wants to move him to a back office. Newman quits but finds he is unable to get a new job (thanks to those "Jewish looking" glasses, it seems) until he walks into a Jewish-owned company in Jersey, where, it happens, Ms. Hart works.

They chat, she gets him the job and they become friends and then, very quickly, it seems, lovers. They marry and she moves in with Newman and his mother. The neighbors think Newman has gotten himself a Jewish bride and tensions begin to mount.

Newman attempts to choose the side that doesn't seem to want him by attending a public meeting in a church and by ceasing to buy his morning newspaper from Finkelstein. But, ultimately, the two will be thrust together by circumstances.

A clear morality play, we have no trouble discerning the forces of good and the forces of evil in this film, with one exception ... Newman himself. He consistently seems to want to make the right choice, but doesn't always do so. In Newman, we see ourselves, driven by right but often bullied by external forces into swerving at times.

Although mistaken identity plays a part in Newman's situation, it is also his morality, his deep-seated knowledge that bigotry is wrong that gets Newman into trouble with people who want him to conform.

Director Neil Slavin does a fine job making "Focus" look smart, stylish and cool, like a colorized version of an old noir flick. He also does a good job building suspense and tension. But Macy, as always, steals the show with his everyman face and demeanor.

As Fred, the troublesome bigoted neighbor, Meat Loaf Aday also shines and Paymer perfectly plays the naivete that allows him to keep his store open in the neighborhood during what are clearly becoming dangerous times.

Perfectly timed, "Focus" has a message for our day. At a time when it is easy to point fingers and make assumptions about people by their race or religion, hatred can easily escalate. If "Behind Enemy Lines" is the season's movie that banks on a lust for battle, then "Focus" is the one that reminds us that Americans don't all look alike and don't all think alike, but that we are all Americans nevertheless.

"Focus" opens Fri., Dec. 7 at Landmark's Downer Theatre. Click here for showtimes.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.