Auto Focus

Bob Crane was a sex addict. That’s all one needs to know to understand why Paul Schrader would be interested in adapting Robert Graysmith’s book, The Murder of Bob Crane, about the actor made famous as the lead in the long-running TV series, Hogan’s Heroes. Schrader, the writer of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and director of Affliction and Blue Collar, was brought up a strict Calvinist and has always had an attendant interest in salvation and moral codes, especially when dealing with sex. His interest is evident in Taxi Driver as Travis Bickle is attracted to golden girl Betsy while also trying to redeem prostitute Iris. In Schrader’s Hardcore, a father tries to rescue his daughter from the world of pornography, and in Raging Bull, Jake La Motta’s inability to see wife Vickie as anything but virgin or whore destroys their relationship.

In Auto Focus, Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) falls from grace going from successful family man to debt-ridden and alone. Starting off in 1964 Los Angeles, Crane is a local disk jockey, happily married to Anne (Rita Wilson); they have a son and two daughters. On the radio, he interviews Clayton Moore, the actor who played the Lone Ranger.This is notable because Moore was famous for presenting a real life image that matched the integrity of the hero he played. Crane’s life would follow the opposite path.In Crane’s ambition, he cites that “likeability is 90% of the battle,” a dictum he would later forget.

Hired for the lead in Hogan’s Heroes, Crane meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) on the set.Carpenter is a techie who boasts of selling prototype video tape recorders to Lyndon Johnson and Elvis Presley, and he introduces Crane to the world of strippers and swingers. With Carpenter’s craggy features, he needs celebrities like Crane and Richard Dawson (Michael Rodgers) to help him get women, and soon he and the amateur Crane are swinging with gusto. Crane vividly records each of his endless sexual encounters via photograph or videotape.Inevitably Anne discovers the incriminating evidence and Crane finds a new wife in Patricia Olson (Maria Bello), who is accepting of his pursuit of other women. As his sex addiction gives Crane image problems and damages his career, he blames society for its prudishness.He’s forced into working on reeking Disney movies like Superdad and a putrid traveling dinner theater show.

Auto Focus has no real plot, composed of a mishmash of scenes thematically concerned with Crane’s moral downfall. There is no build up or suspense, and some scenes like Carpenter’s getting fired from Sony, have little relevance to the rest of the movie. While Hogan’s Heroes is the most recognizable element in the movie, Schrader admirably displays little interest in the show, not even enough to poke fun at it, which would have been too easy. The draw for Schrader is Crane’s addiction, but Schrader stays too distant from the sex, dealing with it impersonally. The viewer never enters Crane’s shoes, making it difficult to comprehend his obsession, all the more so because Crane starts off as unbelievably straight-laced. Schrader should have taken lessons from Trainspotting as to how to present the ambivalent nature of addiction. There’s nothing exhilarating about the sex here. A montage on Crane’s love of breasts is a step in the right direction, but all in all, Schrader conveys minimal eroticism compared to something like this year’s Sex and Lucia.

Makeup man Joel Harlow does an excellent job of giving Kinnear an uncanny resemblance to the real Crane.Kinnear, like Will Smith in Ali and Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon, supplies superb mimicry of a real-life individual, but never quite brings him to life. Kinnear nails the tics and the body language but not the emotions beneath the surface.Dafoe, on the other hand, gets at both.He makes a marvelous corrupter, even more so because his Carpenter is essentially guileless. After Dafoe’s one-note performance in Spider-Man following a brilliant turn in Shadow of the Vampire, he finds his expressive range again. Carpenter struggles with his esteem over his dependency on Crane and Dawson for women, an esteem that receives regular damage from Crane’s incessant jokes that Carpenter is gay. Carpenter may look creepy and his personality falls on the side of too-eager-to-please, but he means well. Dafoe conveys all this lucidly and succinctly.

Auto Focus makes too many jokes like the fax machine in Almost Famous – characters boasting about what now seems like primitive technology that is soon to become ubiquitous. Auto Focus cracks its joke every ten minutes, with Carpenter making such boasts as “You’re all set up – eight watts of pumping power!” Through Carpenter, the movie is a veritable history of VCR technology as he moves from analog tapes to cumbersome home video cameras to monstrous cassettes, each time making the same joke.

The film’s tone, which is more theatrical than naturalistic, comes off rather blah. Shifts in character point-of-view and the use of voice-over seem completely random. The closest Schrader gets to an interesting style is the increasing use of a handheld camera as the movie progresses, indicative of the mounting instability in Crane’s life.Schrader does execute a daring move with a dream sequence Crane has of Hogan’s Heroes, but it is daring precisely because it can so easily fall flat on its face, and it does – it’s blatantly obvious in enumerating all the pressures Crane faces in his life at the time. Ultimately, Auto Focus is little more than a cautionary tale about sex addiction, one that might have greater resonance were it not for the existence of Charlie Sheen who maintains a decent living today.

George Wu

New York, NY
George Wu holds a masters degree in cinema studies from NYU. He eats, drinks, and sleeps movies. Fortunately, he lives in New York City, the best place in the country for disorders of this type. He also works on the occasional screenplay when inspiration strikes, but his muses don't slap him around enough.