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Auto Focus (R)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director: Paul Schrader
Producers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Todd Rosken, Pat Dollard, Alicia Allain
Written by: Michael Gerbosi
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Leibman

Rating: out of 5

The movies have always been squeamish when it comes to male sexuality. Thereís something dark there, something a little too disquieting that scares people off. It may have to do with the fact that testosterone is responsible for both sex drive and rage. This connection is unsettling when you think of the two separately, but itís even worse when you think of them as two branches of the same tree. The polarity between the two is striking (sex=the perseverance of the human race; rage=the downfall of man), and yet, there they are, side by side, implying each other and highlighting the perception that sex is the tool used in a self-imposed ruin.

This idea seems to be the driving force behind Auto Focus, Paul Schraderís new film about the rise and fall of the star of TVís ďHoganís Heroes,Ē Bob Crane. As the film starts, Crane is the star of his own radio show for LA station KNX. After meeting with his agent Lenny (Leibman, Rachelís father on ďFriendsĒ), Crane decides, after a bit of reluctance, to take the lead role in a sitcom set in a World War II POW camp. After ďHoganís HeroesĒ premieres, he is shot to stardom. And so begins the downfall.

At home, his wife, Anne (Wilson) has begun to come across porn magazines in the garage, making her question her husbandís commitment to her. Crane tries to blow it off, telling her that they mean nothing and that heíll get rid of them. Rita Wilson has never really had a role to allow her to show much talent, but here, sheís great, subtly waiting for her world to crash down around her. You can see in her eyes the acknowledgement that the perfect marriage she thought she had is only an illusion and the expectation of worse things in the future than magazines.

Those worse things end up coming courtesy of John Carpenter (not the John Carpenter of Halloween, but wouldnít that have been interesting?), an audiovisual technician Crane meets on the ďHoganísĒ backlot. Willem Dafoe plays Carpenter as weaselly and needy at the same time, a combination that proves to get creepier as the film progresses. The two visit a strip club that night, and a few nights later, they take two strippers back to Carpenterís place, thus beginning a friendship based on the joys of meaningless sex and the thrill of voyeuristic perversity (they film their sexual exploits, sometimes without the women knowing, to document their accomplishments).

Itís in these transitional scenes that Greg Kinnear is amazing as Crane. In the beginning of the film, Crane is a dismally square family man with a goofy grin and an even goofier sense of humor. But as he finds freedom in perversity, his entire being changes. The first time a woman comes onto him, at a ďHoganísĒ party for CBS, thereís this barely noticeable gleam that flits through Kinnearís eyes. Partly flattered, and partly lascivious, itís gone before you ever really knew it was there. And thatís where the brilliance of Kinnearís performance lies: in those unguarded moments where he is unable to hide whatís going on in that head but he tries to anyway. Even later in the film, after Crane has fully embraced his lecherous side, he keeps telling people that there is nothing wrong with the lifestyle he leads, but itís so obvious that heís trying to convince himself of this. If he can justify his compulsions, then he can be proud of them, and then no one can touch him. Kinnear perfectly balances these two sides of Bob Crane, the Bob desperately trying to hide his seedy interests, and the Bob desperately trying to rationalize them. He makes the movie. I hate that phrase ďOscar-worthy performance,Ē but if the shoe fitsÖ

Complementing Kinnearís performance is the terrific cinematography of Gordon Avil and William Jurgensen. They use handheld cameras to their most intimate potential, and as Crane becomes more washed-up, the film becomes more washed-out. Itís subtle, itís affecting, and itís a brilliant instance of the medium using itself to get its point across.

But while Auto Focus is in itself a near-masterpiece, thereís the question of whether or not the filmmakers are being honest about Bob Crane. One of his sons (Scotty) insists that much of the story is fabricated, that poetic license was taken in an irresponsible manner. That may be true, but with autobiographies, there are always fabrications in order to make the story more interesting. Now if that were the only issue here, it wouldnít be a problem. The problem, though, lies in the way Bob Crane is used in the film as a symbol for what the evils of pleasure can do. At the time of his death, Craneís career was actually on an upswing, with some promising work ahead of him and the possibility of rebuilding his relationship with his estranged son. But Auto Focus portrays Crane in his final days to be a slovenly wreck, cutting off ties with people and generally disappearing into his own private hell. Ultimately, itís maddening how didactic Auto Focus ends up being about how you should live your life. Throughout the film, it avers to care about Crane, but finally it seems to just disapprove of him, exploiting his tragedy for the sake of moralizing. And that in itself is a tragedy. [Jump to alternate, female-perspective review]

óCole Sowell


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