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Auto Focus

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 01/08/04 10:47:13

"No, he wasn't a great guy with odd habits. Bob Crane was an asshole."
3 stars (Average)

A biopic can go in one of two directions, in general. It can be a glowing endorsement of what a great guy a given person was, or it can portray them as a great guy who, either by being misunderstood or affected by outside influences, went nuts and caused great pain. Auto-Focus fails only because it tries to cover both bases at the same time. Bob Crane was a serial sex addict, a guy who would film women having sex without their knowledge and show the pictures around to anyone he met. In my book, and the books of most people, that makes him a total prick. But in Auto-Focus, it's clear that the desire is to portray him as a great guy who is just misunderstood; a victim of the prudish nature of his time.

Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) is best remembered as Colonel Hogan in TV's Hogan's Heroes, though his biggest claim to fame is given short shrift in this, the story of his life. The show that Crane is best remembered for is almost backstory, mere background while director Paul Schrader gets to the real Bob Crane - home porno freak, egotist, social misfit, crappy dad.

Crane was a radio DJ in LA who was making a name for himself when TV came a-calling. An instant star with Hogan's Heroes, Crane became swept up in a world of strip clubs, amateur home video, group sex and infidelity, mostly through his friendship with John Carpenter (no, not THAT John Carpenter). Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) was an employee of Sony whose job it was to bring the latest newest video toys into the country and sell them to celebrities. But Crane wasn't just a celebrity with a checkbook - his public stature and insatiable sexual desire soon became Carpenter's entry to the world of celebrity.

And that's kind of where the film stops. Or rather, its progression stops. See, Schrader seems to feel, like Crane, that sex with anything that moves is a natural urge, and that watching it is just fun. And while I've got no problem seeing sex on screen (or indulging in the odd spot of it myself), 105 minutes of it isn't so much titilating, it's more of a drag.

For what it's worth, Kinnear seems to have a better handle on Crane than the filmmakers do. He knows Crane is insincere, a lost human being with no idea of what happiness or family or responsibility really is. While Crane is always the nice guy, he's never a sincere guy - ever. His friends aren't friends, they're tools and toys. His family isn't his most prized part of life, instead he sees them as a burden, both upon his finances and his schedule.

The cast is great. Maria Bello continues to show she can act as well as look good as Crane's second wife. Rita Wilson never lets the side down as wife #1. Dafoe is creepy and slimy and perfect as John Carpenter, the devil on Crane's shoulder.

And Kinnear is magnificent as Crane, down to the last detail and the last frame. He truly is the character from start to finish, and he offers Crane not a shred of humanity as a means to leave him looking better to the audience. While Schrader seems to want Crane to come across as a fallible hero, Kinnear will have none of that. This conflict, conscious or not, is ultimately what drags the film down.

In fact, on the DVD release of the film, you'll find a documentary on Crane's death which is infinitely more interesting, multi-layered and intriguing than the story on the screen.

Just who did kill bob Crane, and why? That's really the big storyline in the life and times of Bob Crane, and it's one that Auto Focus misses entirely. See it for Kinnear's performance, see it for a supreme depiction of the time, but don't go in expecting Citizen Kane. More like Deep Throat.

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