What else can be said of a life that crashed and burned and left no redeeming trace behind? Auto Focus is a film that exposes the private life of B actor, Bob Crane, known to the American public as the likable star of the 60s hit Hogan's Heroes, and the unlikely star of his own creation in self-promotional and personally gratifying pornographic videos that he shot with his male groupie, John Carpenter.
Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), a sprint jockey from the get go in Connecticut, upstanding family man and dyed in the wool Catholic, begins this film as a man on the rise in the entertainment industry in California, who has a "little secret" that will bring his life as he knows it crashing down to earth with a resounding thud, but not before a voyeuristic audience is allowed to participate in his self destruction. Kinnear has fashioned a performance that is eerily on mark, but that is strangely devoid of any feeling that would enable the viewer to feel the slightest bit of sympathy for him. Crane was a man seduced by his own fame and the doors that it could open and shut for him at will. While Kinnear projects a "gee whiz, boy next door" attitude about him when the occasion warrants, he just as quickly changes his spots into the sexual addict that the world remembers him as today.
Crane's obsession with sex ("a day without sex is a day wasted") eventually rollercoasters out of control and results in the divorce from first wife, Anne (Rita Wilson), and his into his second marriage to Patricia (Maria Bello), who was Col. Klink's secretary in Hogan's Heroes.
A toady, groupie, gofer or hanger on, take your pick of monikers, in the guise of John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) will partner Crane and become a harbinger of death in the guise of a fellow "normal" individual. The "urge to merge" with a celebrity and to grasp the brass ring that such association allows, is the driving force behind Carpenter's friendship. Crane and Carpenter feed off of one another, and the capitulating forces that fuel their association, eventually crash and burn when Crane decides that he wants to change his life for the better and leave the sordid world of sex, lies and videotapes behind him. It is a decision that will prove to be quite fatal.
Dafoe is superb as Carpenter, with greasy finesse oozing from every pore, as he placates Crane's every sexual and non-sexual whim. He lives for the tales he relates to anyone who will listen of having sold the latest technological video wonders of the 60's to the likes of Elvis, the Smothers Brothers and others. He thrives on the glories of past times until he hooks up on the set of Hogan's Heroes with Crane and begins a descent into the uncharted world of pornography with a more than willing compatriot. While Dafoe's performance is mesmerizing, it is at the same time pathetic and angry, and is calibrated to uncork with hair trigger precision as he oils his way ever deeper into Crane's orbit. A scene that depicts Crane and Carpenter so bored and jaded with their secret life that they both perform acts of self-masturbation at the same time as they watch a video of Crane "performing," is representative of the new lows to which they have sunk.
Rita Wilson as Anne, made this reviewer's teeth grind each time she appeared on the screen. The assumption is that she was supposed to be the old "ball and chain" who would always stand behind her man, but her performance had the effect of oil and water - it just didn't mix. Her acting left a great deal to be desired and it is with sadness that the comment can be fashioned that this reviewer has seen better acting displayed between a driver and a police officer as the former attempts to "beat the rap" of a speeding ticket. Wilson never gets out of low gear and is stuck grinding pistons that burn without a trace of having ever existed.
Maria Bello as Patricia connects with her role and brings spunk to the material she has been provided. At least her emotions run the gamut.
Paul Schrader has submitted for our considerations a film that traces the destruction of two men who could not break clear of forces that enveloped them tighter and tighter until they reached the boiling point and shattered like brittle glass. The budget on this film was low and in certain respects, it shows the thin veneer that manages to cover some layers of solidity, but more often than not, elicits particle board. The parts of the film that cover the years of Hogan's Heroes looked like a television movie; like Swiss cheese and full of holes. It's interesting to note that every female shown in various states of undress were shown in the suits that God gave them, but when it came to showing the male form, it was generic backsides and skillful blockage of any full frontal nudity on the part of the male stars. It's amusing in light of the fact that this is a film that bases a great part of its storyline ON pornography and seems sexist in its calculations.
The last third of the film, as Crane descends deeper into his personal nightmare, finds the camera capturing the scenes in a hurky jerky movement, as though to characterize his life as it tumbles. The cinematography by Fred Murphy comes in two shades - light and dark. Light for the family man Crane and dark when his daytime hours collide with the harpies of the night.
There is one especially touching scene with Lenny (Ron Leibman) as Crane's agent as he listens with apostasy at Crane's confession of wanting to leave his private life behind and get back in touch with reality and his career as he used to know. Leibman is Crane's conscience, attempting to steer his client and friend back into the fold of normalcy, but who is too little, too late.
One does not walk away from this film with a sense of having been entertained, but rather like having walked on the wild side of perversion and all that it encompasses. Crane always claimed that he was "normal" and that others had problems and were not attuned with life. In truth, he tore the skin of truth apart with both eyes open and reaped what he has sown - a fissure of immeasurable depths that refuses to close the wound even to this day.