Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) is working as a disc jockey in the mid-1960s when his agent gets him the chance to star in a new sitcom, Hogan's Heroes. Despite Crane's reservations about the subject matter, the show is a big success. One day he meets electronics expert John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) on the set, who introduces him to a new technology - home video - and a new way of meeting women. Gradually Crane's marriage begins to break down, and his life is headed for tragedy...
Superficially in the realms of the shock-expose biopic, Auto Focus was written by Michael Gerbosi. As played by Kinnear, Crane acts as if he's just stepped off the set of a corny sitcom, and for the first half, the film presents itself as a cheesy drama about swingers' culture. But as Crane's sexual obsession grows to dominate his life, a feeling of nausea overtakes the events, and the photography becomes more grainy and unstable, as if it's being shot by amateurs such as the two protagonists.
The relationship between Crane and Carpenter is a curious one. Drawn together by both their love of the moving image and their love of the ladies to create home made pornography, they seem to be hiding deeper feelings for each other, only revealed through jokey asides like "Where have you been all my life?". When Carpenter goes too far for Crane's liking during an act of group sex, Crane labels him a homosexual, but could the feeling be mutual, even if neither could admit it? We're presumably supposed to believe that, for these two, group sex is a substitute for gay sex, and this doesn't quite convince.
The projects Crane work on are treated ironically. For Hogan's Heroes, a potentially distressing subject is toned down by it's simple-minded handling, just as the darker elements running through the drama are diluted by the upbeat acting of Kinnear and Dafoe, who are both excellent here. When Crane stars in a terrible Disney film called Superdad, we know how ridiculous this is having seen the break up of, not one, but two marriages due to his pleasure-seeking.
Although deeply flawed men, we feel sorry for Crane and Carpenter, because they're shown to be decent, naive guys even while their relationship is destructive. Near the end, when Crane tries to break off the friendship from the sleazy Carpenter, it's quite an emotional moment, as we don't see it as the act of a man attempting to get his life back on track, but one of cutting the ties with the only real friend he has left.
Auto Focus could be saying that men are weak, and sex is their Achilles heel, but it's never puritanical, it remains sympathetic. As we don't get much insight into what makes Crane tick ("I love breasts!"), the film is more a study of how concentrating on your own selfish desires to the exclusion of everything else will ultimately ruin you. Either that, or it's saying that shallow people lead empty lives. Music by Angelo Badalamenti.