Finally the big screen has embraced such tales, but Auto Focus proves, once again, there's too little tale in these stories to merit more than 15 minutes with Barbara Walters.
Auto Focus is the story of Bob Crane, almost exclusively known as the star of Hogan's Heroes in the late 1960s. After Hogan's was cancelled, Crane vanished from the public eye. Why? Paul Schrader (Cat People, Affliction) points the finger at Crane's wild addiction to sex (especially when Crane could videotape it).
Auto Focus picks up with Crane's (Greg Kinnear) work as an extremely popular, God-fearing DJ in Los Angeles. He doesn't drink, he's a devout Catholic, and his wife (Rita Wilson) and three kids adore him. But once Hogan's comes along, Crane finally hits the big time and begins to indulge his dark passions in full. It starts innocuously enough: An electronics expert named John Carpenter (no, not that John Carpenter; played by Willem Dafoe) takes Bob to a strip club, where he is invited on stage to sit in as a drummer. And as the Baptists know all too well, music leads to dancing, and dancing leads to fornication. Soon enough, Bob is picking up chicks and screwing them senseless back at Carpy's place, recording it all through the new miracle of videotape, and cataloging his exploits in picture books. Before long, word apparently leaks out to Hollywood and once Hogan is washed up, so is Crane. In the end, he's found mysteriously beaten to death in his hotel room by his own tripod.
It sounds provocative, and sometimes, Auto Focus genuinely is. Watching Kinnear-as-Crane wrestle with the little sins that actually lead him to get a penile enlargement and estrange himself from two wives after decades of family life. One of Auto Focus's most painfully nightmarish moments has Crane and Carpenter sitting in Crane's basement as he watches one of his exploits on video and together they try to figure out what city in which they banged her, masturbating all the while.
It's a brave role for Kinnear. (Not so much for Dafoe -- hell, he's played Christ.) But Kinnear has been typecast as such a goodie-goodie for so long this is a real departure for him, and it's the real highlight of the movie.
In fact, Kinnear is the only highlight of the movie, which has so many flaws it's hard to recommend. For starters, it's repetitious to the degree that Crane's exploits become mind-numbingly dull. Sure, that's kind of the point, but we needn't be beat over the head with an endless succession of '70s outfits, singles bars, and Hogan's Heroes-inspired pickup lines. Much of the film is reminiscent of the very similar Permanent Midnight, which also featured a TV professional (a writer, not an actor) facing an addiction (drugs, not sex), utlilizing scenes of surreal hallucination, and starring Maria Bello as the local slut. Auto Focus is not the pile of garbage that Midnight is, but it's not much better. It's a testament to how well Kinnear can carry the film on his own.
Auto Focus plays fairly loose with the facts, too. The timeline of events feels iffy, and Crane's own aborted The Bob Crane Show is never brought up. The funny thing is that his show was such a debacle (cancelled during its first season) it would have been much more fertile territory for mockery than his dinner theater or Herbie appearances.
Of additional note: Schrader's handheld camerawork is nauseating (again, an homage to Crane's own photography but wholly misplaced), much of the dialogue is stilted, the movie relies on an American Beauty-ripped-off voice-over from Crane, and the whole thing peters out about an hour into the picture (just like on E!). All told, it's worth a peek for Kinnear's bravery, but let's be honest, that Anna Nicole show is just as unsettling.
The magic of moving pictures.
Run time: 105 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st November 2002
Box Office USA: $1.8M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Propaganda Films, Good Machine
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Fresh: 114 Rotten: 44
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Michael Gerbosi
Starring: Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane, Willem Dafoe as John Carpenter, Rita Wilson as Anne Crane, Maria Bello as Patricia Olson / Patrica Crane / Sigrid Valdis, Ron Leibman as Lenny, Ed Begley Jr. as Mel Rosen, Michael McKean as Video Executive, Cheryl Lynn Bowers as Cynthia Lynn