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View Date: October 18th, 2002

Rating: ($$ out of $$$$$)


Greg Kinnear Bob Crane
Willem Dafoe John Carpenter
Maria Bello Patricia Crane
Rita Wilson Anne Crane
Ron Leibman Lenny
Bruce Solomon Feldman
Michael E. Rodgers Richard Dawson
Kurt Fuller Werner Klemperer/Col. Klink
Christopher Neiman Robert Clary/LeBeau
Lyle Kanouse John Banner/Sgt. Schultz
Ed Begley Jr. Mel Rosen
Michael McKean Video Executive

Directed by:
Paul Schrader

Written by:
 (book) Robert Graysmith
 (screenplay) Michael Gerbosi

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Auto Focus

Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus is allegedly based on the book “The Murder of Bob Crane” by Robert Graysmith.  I say allegedly, because the focus of the film is more on the details of his life than on his unfortunate demise.  And the truth is, the details of his life, the sex addiction, the inability to let go of the one true success in his life amidst many failures, just isn’t that interesting.  Schrader’s tale may have worked better as a retrospective retelling rather than a forward progression building to something.  Yes, he had an addiction, yes he struggled through 2 marriages and a career that fizzled after his show went off the air, but the reason most of us remember Crane, other than his role as Colonel Hogan, was because of the mysterious, sordid events surrounding his death.  Had the film explored this in more than just a closing voice-over, than it might have worked better.  As it is, the film is beautifully shot, with the style and textures degrading as Crane’s own mental stability did, it is wonderfully cast, especially Kinnear who becomes a spitting image of Crane and Kurt Fuller (finally in a good role) as Werner Klemperer. But the film suffers from being too laborious in its character development, too repetitive in its depictions, and in the end, just too long for its own good.

Auto Focus purports to be about the life of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, much to the publicized protests of Crane’s son Scotty.  It tells of his days as a Los Angeles disc jockey, then his ascension to television star with Heroes, through struggles with both his identity and his addiction to sex and to his untimely and mysterious demise.  Crane associated himself with John Carpenter (an expectedly creepy Willem Dafoe) who kept Crane on the cutting edge of technology while contributing to his downfall concurrently.  As Crane’s life spirals out of control, the look of the film follows along, with the style becoming darker and murkier as his life does.  Schrader spends long and repetitive sequences showing us how Crane was tortured with his addiction, yet couldn’t control it.  This could have been a bit more subtly done without beating us over the head repeatedly.  Crane was addicted to sex, got it.  Crane didn’t like himself, got it.  Crane couldn’t get out from under his image of Hogan, got it.  The rest just becomes repetitious and unnecessary filler.  Were it not for the performances of Kinnear and Dafoe, this would have been an even less enjoyable experience.

There’s no denying the ability of Schrader to create a concurrent sympathy and loathing for his characters, blurring the line between good and bad while showing the natural evil that may lurk around us without our knowledge.  His version of Crane, as embodied wonderfully by Kinnear, is one of a tortured and sad soul who is tempted by the seemingly evil Carpenter.  Kinnear has definitely matured as an actor, rising from talk show host, to Oscar nominee, to now accomplished and multi-faceted actor.  While the role is not completely award worthy, because of Schrader’s one note nature of storytelling, it is still noteworthy as a role that makes you almost forget you’re watching an actor and think you’re watching the actual person.  Dafoe’s turn is one that is definitely more creepy and scary than his near misfire in Spider-Man.  He is a guy who exists around us, that we may not even realize the depths of unless we get to know him.  Unfortunately though, these great performances, and the great character turns from Fuller, Rita Wilson and Maria Bello, cannot overcome a story that gets stuck in repetition and in the end, bogged down by its own methodology. 

Ultimately, Auto-Focus is a well-intended, well-made but one note unfocused attempt to try and show the excess that can consume and how one can get lost inside themselves.  There probably was a good story here to tell, but it would have worked better as a retrospect, exploring the hows and why’s afterwards, rather than having it told as a voice-over and afterthought.  Hollywood and the entertainment industry has a way of swallowing people up and uncaringly spitting them out without concern for the effects that the rollercoaster ride has had on them.  Crane was such a casuality, just like George Reeves and others who were known for one thing and spent the rest of their lives capitalizing on it.  There was a message to be told here, of excess, of addiction, of trying to find yourself again after getting lost.  Unfortunately Schrader believes that repetition breeds success, since we are given repeatedly similar incidents, each one being another step down the ladder that Crane ascended so effortlessly.  When the result is more interesting than the events, there is a very precarious line to be walked when telling the story.  It’s a line that Schrader starts nicely on, casts very well, sets the mood and atmosphere for, but fails to expound or deliver on.  We are more interested in what killed Crane, rather than what drove him, and in doing so has given us a film that blew a chance to tell a great story and instead may have further blurred a story which has been an enigma since it occurred.

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