Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Defoe
his could have been a bone-tastic trashy celebrity bio-pic. It’s got sex, videotape, a second-rate celebrity and an unsolved murder, sleazing through two decades of American anti-culture – and best of all, it’s directed by Paul Schrader, no stranger himself to the excess of Hollywood. In the authoritative work on the bad habits of ‘70s filmmakers, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, you can read page after page of anecdotes about Schrader, who made his name as screenwriter for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: you’ve got drugs, raging egos, and in a move that prefigures the main theme of Auto Focus, he even filmed some below-the-waist footage of then-girlfriend Nastassja Kinski.
Unfortunately, Schrader is far more interesting than the subject he’s stuck with here. Auto Focus tells the story of Bob Crane, the star of the hit ‘60s TV show Hogan’s Heroes. Crane, played brilliantly square by Greg Kinnear, became a celebrity for the show’s six year run and then faded into obscurity, where he would have stayed but for two things: his prodigious, kinky sex life, and the unsolved murder that ended his life in 1978. These are the big selling points for Auto Focus, but Schrader doesn’t exploit them: he turns the film into a character study, and the more we learn about Bob Crane, the less interesting he becomes.
There’s no suspense in this film. Everyone who sees it either remembers Crane’s story or has heard it retold in the press that surrounds this movie and even if you’ve been under a rock, the opening credits conveniently tell you that he was murdered, as well. But even worse, you’ll quickly recognize the standard tragedy plot that Schrader’s working with: the classic “schmuck becomes a rich schmuck becomes a schmuck again” arc.
Crane starts the film by taking a chance on a lead role in a comedy about a German POW camp - which is a real risk, and the most interesting decision the character ever makes. Crane’s famous until the series ends, but then his career stalls out: instead of becoming the next Jack Lemmon, he’s all but forgotten, and struggles through the next decade. Just as the story arc feels familiar, Schrader predictably uses bright pastel colors, the advent of rock and a few naked hippies to get us through the ‘60s, while the ‘70s bring us bad fashion and scruffy haircuts - just like they did in Blow, Boogie Nights, Goodfellas, etc. Schrader also makes an unsubtle switch to washed-out colors and shaky hand-held camera when Crane hits bottom.
So we know about the guy's career. But then there’s the matter of Crane’s sleazy side: he had a thing for screwing lots and lots of women and videotaping it. At the start of the movie, Crane is a pineapple-juice drinking married man who likes to hide the occasional copy of Gent in his garage. Then he meets John Carpenter (no relation to the director), a swaggering but inept swinger who sells audio/video equipment to celebrities. Carpenter, played masterfully by Willem Dafoe, leads Crane into temptation: as soon as he realizes he can get any woman he wants, Crane goes wild, while Carpenter keeps him in girls and video cameras. He also becomes Crane’s bitch – the lapdog sidekick who does whatever his pal asks, and settles for his leftovers.
Carpenter has needs and motives of his own, and figuring them out is far more interesting than watching the main character. The reason those trashy biographies work so well is that they give us the dirt without trying to explain it. Schrader's too good a director to settle for that. He pulls some nice tricks, especially with repetition: he puts the same actors at the strip club year after year, and uses the same scene from Kinnear’s career-low dinner theater performance over and over again. All of the acting is solid, especially from Kinnear, who gets many shades of lust and selfishness out of Crane's square, confident smile; yet he takes him apart so thoroughly that he becomes demystified - specifically, he doesn’t seem sleazy anymore.
Crane doesn’t act like a sexual addict so much as a five-year-old on his first trick or treating spree: he can’t believe he’s lucky enough to get all this for free. No matter how famous he becomes or how many women he sleeps with, he doesn’t hurt anyone, doesn’t get into drugs, doesn’t play with animals and generally does nothing outrageous: sure, he’s a horndog, but he’s so simple that he seems like any normal guy who got an amazing opportunity and took it. As for the consequences, he may have ruined his marriages, but it's not obvious that his "reputation" crippled his career: starring in flops like Superdad probably hurt him as much as anything.
But more importantly, Crane doesn’t see anything wrong with his life: in fact, there’s no introspection to his character at all. The phoniness behind his winning smile, the effortlessness with which he charms people, the disturbing way he can jump from berating someone to chatting with them, all indicate, not some kind of duality, but a total lack of complexity. And when Crane uses the same video camera to film his kids and then to film a DD-cup groupie going down on him, it’s not creepy so much as more proof that he does whatever he wants when he wants to, and that’s as deep as it goes. Sometimes he has regrets, but end-to-end, Crane barely changes at all. Capturing that character is difficult, and this is a better portrayal than you’ll usually see in a flick like this: for all its similarities, say, to Ted Demme’s Blow, this is the better-crafted film, with a more famous schmuck. But Schrader never tells us: why should we care?
By: Chris Dahlen
Published on: 2003-09-01