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'Auto Focus'

'Auto Focus' peers into the seamy life of Bob Crane

Friday, November 01, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Auto Focus" begins its peek into the life of TV star and secret sex addict Bob Crane with a credit sequence worthy of a '50s Rat Pack movie -- jazzy upbeat tune, sleek drawings that include some winking allusions to women's breasts.

'Auto Focus'

RATING: R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use and violence.

STARRING: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe.

DIRECTOR: Paul Schrader.

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/


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Cut to Los Angeles, 1964. Crane, portrayed by the wholesome Greg Kinnear, has a top-rated radio show. The California sun brings out the brightness of his Technicolor sweaters. He is about to be offered the lead in "Hogan's Heroes," which would make him a household name.

Gosh, Beaver, can this really be a movie by Paul Schrader, the director known for such cinematic prints of darkness as "Affliction," "American Gigolo" and "Hardcore"?

Sure thing, Wally. The first sign of trouble comes when Crane's wife (Rita Wilson) finds girlie magazines in the garage. Then Crane meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who outfits the camera-loving actor with one of the earliest available videotape recorders.

Pretty soon, he and Carpenter have a tag team going. Crane's celebrity lures the women; Carpenter provides the love nest and the means to videotape the action.

Crane is sharp enough to question whether a TV sitcom set in a Nazi POW camp represents a smart career move. But he was oblivious to the harm that his sexual addiction was doing to his family and career.

Even Schrader doubts Crane could have been as ingenuous as Kinnear renders him at first. But it makes the man's downward spiral that much steeper, leading to a chilling scene in the office of his agent (Ron Leibman) in which an older, grayer Crane all but begs for work -- still oblivious to why he can't get any. He is literally and figuratively in the dark -- the sunshine and the bright sweaters are gone.

"Auto Focus" proves fascinating and even compelling at times, like a train wreck. The seamy subject matter is part of the reason, but also what Schrader and screenwriter Michael Gerbosi do with it.

Yes, there is skin and steam, but it appears more mechanical than passionate. The most interesting relationship is the one between Crane and Carpenter, two guys who have shared such intimacies with women that sex becomes the most casual of subjects between them. But we can't be that casual -- or shameless. Some of the scenes featuring the two men might be shockingly funny if they weren't so uncomfortable to watch.

For all that, "Auto Focus" may leave you wanting more. It is not so much a narrative drama as a character study of a man unaware he is falling. You see what happens to Crane, but you may not come away knowing much more about him, despite impressive performances by Kinnear and Dafoe.

Fortunately, "Auto Focus" does offer moments of comic relief, chiefly in the re-creation of the "Hogan's Heroes" set. Kurt Fuller as Colonel Klink looks and sounds just enough like the original to make you want to waggle a finger and declare, "Ho-o-o-o-o-gan!"

If only he knew what Hogan and Fraulein Hilda were doing behind his back.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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