Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 31, 2002
Auto Focus
Starring Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Michael Gerbosi, based on Robert Graysmith’s book. Rated R.
The Life and Death of Col. Hogan

A bad tv show and videotaped orgies are Bob Crane’s life in Auto Focus.


Paul Schrader’s reputation as a filmmaker is inflated, though it’s for all the right reasons. His films (Affliction, American Gigolo) are intelligent, distinctive, and disdainful of conventional storytelling logic. These are admirable, even formidable attributes, and they help ensure that his movies are seldom dull. Yet even his best work tends to be unsatisfying, as he breaks dramatic rules just to break rules and has trouble casting the right actors. So it is with Auto Focus, his biography of actor and notorious murder victim Bob Crane.

The movie picks up in 1964, as Crane (Greg Kinnear) is a Los Angeles radio d.j. who wants to be the next Jack Lemmon. He’s appalled, therefore, when his agent (Ron Leibman) hands him a script for a television show, and worse, a sitcom, set in a Nazi prison camp. Hogan’s Heroes brings him improbable stardom, but no one will hire him after its run ends, partly because his insatiable desire to videotape himself having sex with various women is consuming his work and his reputation. The movie concentrates on his relationship with John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), an electronics expert who strokes Crane’s ego, scavenges the crumbs from his minor celebrity, hooks him up with women and the latest in video recording equipment, and probably kills him in 1978 after Crane tries to cut Carpenter loose. The two make an increasingly creepy pair of swingers as they age, and the need to score chicks takes over their lives.

Kinnear has some limited success in his role, but his wide-eyed manner is too Jim Carrey. He neither looks nor sounds like Crane, and his makeup and wardrobe carry much of his performance: As Crane’s career prospects go south, his hair gets grayer, his glasses get larger, and his ingratiating smile becomes more desperate. Kinnear does look convincing as both the young handsome actor and the older man gone to seed, but the filmmakers don’t let him sound any other notes. Dafoe, meanwhile, overacts just as much as he did on Spider-Man, though it’s easier to take here.

The main problem isn’t the casting, though. Crane was a monumentally uninteresting guy, and his presence is a vacuum at the film’s center. He learns nothing from his life — his final line, delivered voice-over as he observes his own death, is, “What can I say? Men gotta have fun.” What edification is there in watching him destroy himself, especially when he’s too oblivious to realize what he’s doing? Schrader’s dry, pitiless tone squeezes out all the story’s juice. The film’s too unemotional to be a tragedy, and it fails as a cautionary tale about fame, because Crane’s obsession is so weird that we can’t take it as representative of anything. His sex addiction was arguably similar to other people’s troubles with gambling or drugs or alcohol, but plenty of people get hooked on those without being rich and famous. There’s nothing to latch onto, except one hallucinatory sequence on the Hogan’s Heroes set where Col. Klink (Kurt Fuller) and Sgt. Schulz (Lyle Kanouse) come to life and start making fun of Crane’s personal problems. A grim, deeply unsexy film that wears you down without compensating you, Auto Focus winds up dying from autoerotic asphyxiation.

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