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Auto Focus   B+

Sony Pictures Classics

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Michael Gerbosi (based on a book by Robert Graysmith)
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Leibman, Bruce Solomon.

Review by Rob Vaux

The story of Bob Crane, who starred in the hit show Hogan's Heroes before descending into a bacchanalian fog of sexual addiction (and who was eventually murdered in an Arizona hotel room), typifies the Hollywood star scandal. Nice guy makes good, finds success beyond his dreams, only to take it all for granted and lose it to his insatiable appetites. The archetype goes back to the Fatty Arbuckle days, and never ceases to fascinate the American public. As such, it has its share of clichés -- clichés that Auto Focus, Paul Schrader's new account of Crane and his life, can't entirely escape. It follows the standard rise-and-fall route, charting a path as inevitable as it is well-traveled. But Schrader, whose credits include the screenplays for Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, uncovers a new wrinkle in his worn themes. Auto Focus succeeds largely due to his perceptive take on the subject, and in the way Crane's case both embodies and defies the standard mold.

Crane started out in radio, polishing a series of wacky DJ routines before hitting the jackpot as Col. Robert Hogan, the breezy head mischief-maker in a WWII POW camp. As played by Greg Kinnear, he comes across as charming, likable... and utterly empty. He has little depth or complexity, just an affable nature and a willingness to please. He makes people laugh, he sets them at ease, but he has very little genuine humanity. He is, in many ways, the ultimate celebrity -- a cardboard image with nothing underneath. At first, that blandness keeps him separate from the showbiz debauchery surrounding him. He attends church with his family, owns a home in the suburbs, and remains happily married to his high school sweetheart (a quietly effective Rita Wilson). He even receives interview requests from Christian organizations, who consider him an anathema to the usual sin and vice.

Naturally there's a dark side to his hollow demeanor. It's largely hidden until he meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) an electronics nut who peddles high-tech toys to Hollywood celebrities. Crane is intrigued by Carpenter's wares -- prototype cameras and videotape recorders "that let you watch your home movies on the TV" -- and soon purchases an impressive collection of gadgets from the man. Carpenter is also a swinger and begins inviting Crane to strip joints and private soirees with willing young women. The mixture of video equipment and sexual stimulation awakens an obsession in the budding TV star, facilitating voyeurism, fetishism, and horniness on a level that would kill most breeds of livestock. The two men's friendship grows, even as the remainder of Crane's life declines: the show is cancelled, his career dries up, one marriage ends and another stumbles along on recrimination and denial. Through it all, the dalliances continue, with Carpenter feeding Crane's fetish and being fed in turn by Crane's increasingly tarnished celebrity status.

The pattern is wearisome, but Schrader has the wherewithal to produce something fresh with it: most notably Crane's fascination with video. The equipment -- early VCRs, home cameras, editing machines -- was cutting edge at the time, but now appears hopelessly quaint, its descendents a staple of American households. Schrader draws a nice parallel between the rapidly advancing nature of technology and the ephemeral nature of stardom: both vanish into oblivion with startling speed. Crane enjoys the sensation of watching, but he also likes being watched; the video camera gives his sexual escapades the same charge as standing under the television lights. When his star begins to fall, he turns to the video equipment as a substitute. Carpenter -- played with the right mixture of sleaze and pathos by Dafoe -- gets a residual thrill from Crane's stature, and uses his technical know-how to secure that fix. The two men form a fascinating symbiotic, not-quite-homoerotic relationship that drives Auto Focus away from the pitfalls of other Hollywood biopics. Schrader uses their interdependency to great effect, making his points subtly without descending into theatrical histrionics.

Kinnear is strangely perfect in the lead. In another world, he might have easily occupied the same rung on the Hollywood ladder, and his bland persona finds brilliant expression in Crane's decaying charisma. Despite the mess his life spirals into, Crane doesn't appear to suffer much; he just drifts from one state of being to the next. From family man on the rise to hard-working TV star to has-been hustler to occupant of dinner theater hell, he treats it all with the same disaffected charm. And always, there are the women. Bedroom after bedroom of them, one blurring into another. Kinnear's disaffected smile adds an intriguing dimension to Crane's sexual excesses; the character suffers a fundamental disconnect that blinds him to his state. The set design and cinematography complement his performance with a striking yet understated rendition of the swinging sixties. Schrader's savvy brings that world to life, but his discipline keeps it from dominating the proceedings. As the Dean Martin cool slowly curdles into '70s tackiness, we understand how stories like Crane's come into being. He doesn't see his life in context; he never pauses to think about what he's doing. With a moral compass so fundamentally adrift, all he can do is cruise slowly into oblivion, making sure to wave at the passersby along the way. Auto Focus knows we've taken that trip before, but it's clever enough to find a new route to the destination, turning another Behind the Music sob story into a unique parable of life in front of the camera.

Review published 11.05.2002.

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