Auto Focus

Movie Review by Neil Ryan

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Leibman
Director: Paul Schrader

AUTO FOCUS is a biopic that depicts the last fourteen years in the life of Bob Crane: actor, DJ, and sex addict. At the film’s outset Crane (played by Greg Kinnear) is happily married to childhood sweetheart Anne, and the couple live with their three children in a plush Los Angeles suburb. Crane is a DJ and sometime actor who gets a big break in 1965 when he is cast in the lead role of the soon-to-be-huge sitcom HOGAN’S HEROES; the success of the show subsequently makes Crane an instantly recognisable face in America.

Via a fellow cast member Crane meets technology whiz John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) and the two strike up an unlikely friendship based around shared interests in women and the exciting ‘new’ world of home video recording. The pair use Crane’s celebrity to impress and seduce hundreds of women, often photographing and filming their exploits. Unsurprisingly, Crane’s marriage dissolves; he remarries but this second union suffers just as much strain as the first because of his unusual lifestyle. The film climaxes with the (still unsolved) murder of Crane in an Arizona hotel in 1978.

AUTO FOCUS continues director Paul Schrader’s predilection for making films about compulsive individuals that exist on the fringes of society (i.e. TAXI DRIVER, AMERICAN GIGOLO, LIGHT SLEEPER). Crane is extremely shallow, immune to his own shortcomings, yet somehow likeable. As portrayed by Kinnear, he projects a blankness, a neutrality of character which makes him impossible to hate; and it is this denial of emotional commitment that enables Crane to maintain his seedy lifestyle without realising the detrimental impact that it is having on his career.

The film opens with a jazzy title sequence complete with pop-culture graphics, and the early scenes are shot to resemble the gaudy use of Technicolor in its heyday. The brightly coloured home life of the Cranes is almost reminiscent of THE BRADY BUNCH, with happy family sat down to dinner together and even the insertion of some snappy one-liners. However, by the end of the film Schrader has drained the scenes of colour to give a bleached effect that parallels the gradual devolvement of any brightness or personality from Crane himself.

Like much of Schrader’s work AUTO FOCUS is thoughtful and measured; he eschews exhilaration and emotional manipulation and the fate of his characters is often dependent on what they choose not to do rather than any great premeditation on their part. As a biopic of the underbelly of American celebrity it makes a fine companion piece for MAN ON THE MOON and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND.

4 out of 6 stars

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