2002, R, 104 min. Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Ed Begley Jr, Don McManus, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Rita Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Greg Kinnear.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 1, 2002
There's a telling moment early on in Auto Focus, the accomplished film about Sixties television actor Bob Crane, whose sexual compulsions propelled his personal and professional life in a downward spiral until he was found bludgeoned to death in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room in 1978. A fan asks Crane (Kinnear), an amateur percussionist, whether the drum solos that Crane aired on his pre-Hogan's Heroes radio program were really his own musical riffs. With a hurt look that conveys a hint of pained self-realization, the straight-and-narrow Crane -- the model of suburban civility who drives a station wagon and wears cardigan sweaters, a devoted father and husband who regularly attends Mass, an actor who aspires to a Jack Lemmon career -- quietly responds, “I wasn't faking that.” It's the confessional admission of a man who, by all accounts, spent his life living a lie until he finally capitulated to his darker impulses and never looked back. Fascinating in every respect, Auto Focus portrays Crane's freefall into his carnal abyss without moral judgment, even when his self-destructive conduct disassociates him from everyone else in his life. That is, with the exception of John Carpenter (Dafoe), who introduces Crane to the world of orgies and videotape, a scene in which the Playboy ethos is embodied by their oft-repeated (without irony) mantra: “A day without sex is a day wasted.” The symbiosis between the two men, as well as their sexual addictions, initially makes for a perfect folie à deux: Crane attracts women with his bland handsomeness and celebrity, while Carpenter possesses the technological know-how to capture their sexcapades for posterity. (The film makes it clear that no sexual relationship existed between them, however, despite their proclivity for engaging in group sex and masturbating together while watching homemade porn.) But the dynamic begins to disintegrate as the equilibrium between the two shifts, and the film leaves little doubt that an angry and betrayed Carpenter murdered Crane in his sleep, although he was acquitted in a criminal trail years later. There's much to commend Auto Focus. The set and art direction are superb, evoking Sixties and Seventies décor with a dazzling precision. Dafoe's snaky performance has a poisonous desperation, although you can't help feel for the guy because he is such a loser, while Wilson and Bello's turns as Crane's forsaken wives make strong impressions. The real eye-opener here, however, is Kinnear -- his performance should open a lot of doors for this one-time Talk Soup host, as well. Although he bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Crane (and shares the same smirk), the wonder of Kinnear's portrayal is how he becomes Crane, both physically and emotionally, as opposed to impersonating him. (Take note, Jim Carrey, the next time you play a real person.) The last few scenes of Auto Focus are discomfortingly creepy, thanks in large part to Kinnear -- you watch Crane go to seed before your very eyes, and it's a scary sight to see him slip. In a strange way, director Schrader may have found a muse in Kinnear, albeit a temporary one. Their efforts in this film are in synchronization. In the past, much of Schrader's work has explored the peripheries of human existence -- Taxi Driver, Hardcore, The Comfort of Strangers, Affliction, to name a few -- but here he examines what could have been sensationalized subject matter in a subtle, almost discreet manner. He's not out to shock or moralize here; in truth, his motives are somewhat unclear. And while not his most provocative film, Auto Focus is easily his most cohesive and, perhaps, one of his most honest works. In the end, you know no more about what made Bob Crane tick than you did at the outset of the film. Perhaps that's the point of Auto Focus: For a lot of us, sex may be man's most unknowable mystery.