*Auto Focus (R)
Sony Pictures Classics
Paul Shrader's bleak and mesmerizing biopic of 1960s television star Bob Crane begins with a splashy credit sequence of pastel-shaded martini glasses, cigarette holders, pin-up photos and celebrity mugs, evoking the easy cool of the era that brought us Dean Martin and the birth of the television sit-com. Ironically, when Crane was offered the lead in Hogan's Heroes, a comedy set in a World War II German prison camp, he hesitated to take the role for fear that it would be a "career killer." As it turned out, it catapulted him to instant fame -- a condition that would ultimately fuel his insatiable pursuit of sex and pornographic images and would certify his murder in a Scottsdale, Ariz. hotel room as a "celebrity" killing.
But by the time Bob Crane -- once a straight-arrow family man, cocky but teetotaling and churchgoing -- was bludgeoned to death, he had fallen into relative obscurity, except for his sordid reputation as a Hollywood "swinger." He had driven away two wives and families, was unable to get screen work because of his image problem, and was so far gone in his sexual addiction that there was no turning back.
Through it all, Crane perceived himself as "a likable guy."
Auto Focus is about the dark side of a clueless, blandly attractive, likable guy who sleepwalks through life with no self-awareness, no conscience and no moral compass. Greg Kinnear plays Crane with affable ease that descends in the second act into loneliness and tragic self-delusion.
Shrader (Affliction, American Gigolo, writer of Taxi Driver) is no stranger to the seedier side of personal and social exile. A film scholar turned screenwriter raised in a strict Calvinist family, he uses characters to explore the evils of modern life. In Auto Focus, Bob Crane the actor becomes the blank slate of sexual addiction where the sex act is anything but satisfying and voyeurism and exhibitionism, via taped and photographed images, become the forbidden fruit.
The film's first act depicts Crane's family life with his high-school sweetheart Ann, deftly played by Rita Wilson, and their adorable family, perfect Donna Reed Show knockoffs. When Hogan's Heroes takes off and the hyperactive Crane needs an after-work diversion, he is shepherded to the dark side by a photo technology geek named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). Soon Crane and "Carpy" are cruising strip joints and staging orgies in Carpy's bachelor pad, videotaping sexual trysts for later visual stimulation. They're "two wild and crazy guys" gone bad. Very bad.
Their friendship and mutual dependency -- Carpy's on Crane for attracting chicks, Crane's on Carpy for video servicing -- become central to the story, illustrating the cruelty of the addictive personality -- using, self-serving and blind to its effects on others.
This is at once a repelling and compelling film to watch. Crane and Carpy are such sleaze buckets that you feel the urge to flee the theater to wash your face and hands about every 20 minutes. But Shrader's direction and respectful, sound performances by all the actors keep you in your seat. The filming moves from dolly shots to Steadicam to handheld camera, from bright lights and peppermint shades to darker, harsher lighting and hideous close-ups as the drama moves from cheerful order to chaos. The effect, while a bit too obvious, is jangling and suitably nerve-wracking. Less effective is the director's choice of using a from-the-grave, cheery narrative voice-over, provided by Kinnear, to move the story forward in time.
Kinnear's performance is one of the year's best, and the actor's sure entre into big-league roles. He doesn't impersonate Bob Crane, though he captures many of his physical gestures. He becomes the host of Bob Crane's demons, and that is something to see.
-- Kathryn Eastburn