A review of “Auto Focus” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for nudity, sexuality, language

Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

 

 

Bob Crane was a national hero – the lovable, affable star of the classic WWII POW comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” (1965-1971), who manipulated venomous Nazi Colonel Klink with a casual nonchalance that charmed millions of viewers. Director Paul Schrader has a different tale to tell – of a cheerful public persona masking an unspeakable personal struggle that took Crane to the brink and beyond.

From small-time, smart-aleck L.A. radio host to star of the small screen, Crane (Greg Kinnear) appeared to have it all.  Loving wife and kids, a wicked sense of humor, and an easygoing talent.  But behind the stalwart, teetotaling family man was an uncommonly sordid soul – a man who was so thoroughly addicted to sex that he literally couldn’t get enough of it.

The significant incident of Crane’s imbalanced life was a chance meeting with video technician John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe in full lowbrow mode).  Carpenter fueled Crane’s lust for all things carnal by providing the means to record his extracurricular escapades (a la the first, absurdly cumbersome video camera).  The enormous amateur porn library that flourished from this symbiotic acquaintance was both revealing and uniquely incriminating.

Catholic guilt and an acute conflict between lifestyle and career tore at Crane’s psyche. The vicious cycle of one-night-stands cum orgies took a grim toll. Crane’s compulsion was measured in subtle shifts; only a supremely flexible talent like Kinnear could whittle away at his nuances and come up with thespian gold.  Kinnear virtually reeks of desperation, while high-fiveing his way through the marriages, the fans, and the tacky after-hours dinner theater. Dafoe is shrewdly menacing and uncomfortably sycophantic as he clings to Crane’s celebrity coattails, a convincing combination that could spell Oscar.

Squeaky clean by day and impetuously promiscuous by night.  This distinct transformation also requires discreet visual alterations.  The vibrant 1960s set design and color infer dazzling success, fading to a gloomy palette as Crane’s success story travels forlornly south.