Movie review, 'Auto Focus'

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"Auto Focus," Paul Schrader's movie about the swinging life and sordid death of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane, is a smart but strangely unmoving film that takes a hard look at the sexual revolution and one famous casualty: the '60s sitcom star who was bludgeoned to death in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room in 1978 after a decade-long binge of sex addiction and homemade video pornography.

Crane's story is riveting and sleazy, a descent into the depths of fast-lane scandal, and the movie doesn't skimp or tone it down. Neither does star Greg Kinnear, who does a brilliant job of conveying the dual layers of a guy like Crane: the boyish charm above, the amoral drives below.

Still, there's something unsatisfying about "Auto Focus." It's a very dry and intelligently made picture about a subject that might have worked better with more sensuality and humor. Schrader has always been a moralist with a taste for the dark side, something we clearly see in movies like "Hard Core," "American Gigolo" and "Taxi Driver" (which he wrote). He approaches Crane with the same mix of bluntness and fascination. Working from a script by newcomer Michael Gerbosi, he takes us through Crane's life, from his ascent to national fame - his casting as wily Col. Robert Hogan in the outlandish WWII prisoner-of-war-camp comedy "Hogan's Heroes" (1965-71) - to his 1978 murder.

When we first see Crane, he's an L.A. media charm boy at the summit of his popularity, as the KNX radio morning superjock and celebrity interviewer who does occasional TV shows ("The Donna Reed Show") and yearns for movie celebrity. "Hogan's Heroes," the TV pilot that his wife Anne (Rita Wilson) urges him to reject - a corny knockoff of the classic 1953 Billy Wilder POW comedy "Stalag 17," with Crane in a watered-down version of Bill Holden's Oscar-winning turn as camp scrounger Sefton - gives him that fame.

That fame proves to be the kiss of death. Crane, initially shown as a model family man and churchgoer with a secret predilection for nudie magazines, keeps going deeper into the world of kinky serial sexuality to which his celebrity grants him access. He hangs out in L.A. strip clubs, scoring pickups, engaging in numerous acts and orgies, and eventually taping them with the aid of a seedy, obsessive video-equipment troubleshooter named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). Carpenter (not the director) was eventually charged with (but acquitted of) Crane's murder. Interestingly, he was introduced to Crane by swinging "Hogan's Heroes" co-star Richard Dawson (Michael Rodgers).

There's a lot of nude flesh and implied sex in "Auto Focus," but it's not really a sexy movie. Though that's obviously Schrader's intention, the lack of sensuality kills some of the drama. Would "Days of Wine and Roses" be as powerful a study of alcoholism if the film - and Jack Lemmon's performance - didn't convey the "magic time" of drunkenness as well as the hell of its morning after? In "Auto Focus," Schrader shoots the whole movie in a calculated visual style that becomes darker and more nervous, full of bleak colors and handheld camera work. But though he's good at portraying both the hell and the absurdity of sex addiction, he doesn't really capture its sordid rapture. I also didn't buy the portrayal of Crane as a straight-arrow, all-American family guy who stumbled onto the dark side of sex because of Carpenter. He makes more sense as a secret philanderer whose sexual misconduct probably predated "Hogan" but escalated afterward because of fame and the sexual revolution. Schrader's big theme is the conflict between organized religion, spirituality and sexuality, and perhaps he's simply pouring that old sacramental wine into this bottle, too.

But "Auto Focus" (a title that refers to the self-focusing device on modern, post-Bob Crane video cameras) does strongly benefit from its overall smartness and lucidity, and from two very canny, well-thought-out performances by Kinnear and Dafoe. (Kurt Fuller also does an amazing impersonation of "Hogan's Heroes" star Werner Klemperer.) Kinnear, a former TV host himself, knows how to convey Crane's superficial "likeability" and his inner compulsion. As for Dafoe, he makes a magnificently bent techno-creep as Carpenter, whose expertise unleashes Crane's video depravities.

"Auto Focus" suggests that celebrity corrupts and absolute celebrity corrupts absolutely. But Schrader isn't being puritanical about sex; he argues that Crane's main sin is not fornication but selfishness, that his voyeurism may be more vile than serial lechery. What he misses is the obsessive insanity of the '60s and '70s (pre-herpes, pre-AIDS), when someone like Crane might have had thousands of sexual encounters. ("A day without sex is a day wasted," is Crane's motto in the film.) The movie needs the fake ecstasy that fueled that era, needs to do more than ridicule Crane and create its own version of a Russ Meyer nudie-cutie. I would have liked "Auto Focus" much more if I could have seen it more fully as the work of the man who wrote "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," and directed "Blue Collar" and "Affliction." "Auto Focus" skates over depravity when, like Crane, it should have dug down deeper.

3 stars (out of 4)
"Auto Focus"
Directed by Paul Schrader; written by Michael Gerbosi, based on "The Murder of Bob Crane"; photographed by Fred Murphy; edited by Kristina Boden; production designed by James Chinlund; music by Angelo Badalamenti; produced by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszeski, Todd Rosken, Pat Dollard, Alicia Alain. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, Oct. 25. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use and violence).
Bob Crane - Greg Kinnear
John Carpenter - Willem Dafoe
Anne Crane - Rita Wilson
Patricia Crane - Maria Bello
Lenny - Ron Liebman
Werner Klemperer - Kurt Fuller
Mel Rosen - Ed Begley, Jr. Richard Dawson - Michael Rodgers

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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