Auto Focus review

:. Director: Paul Schrader
:. Starring: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe
:. Running Time: 1:47
:. Year: 2002
:. Country: USA


I suppose the title, "Auto Focus", was intended to refer to the main character's self-involvement as well as to his hobbies—specifically, photography and pornography. Or, maybe not. I'm confused, because for me, the story of the murdered Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane remains out of focus. (Maybe that was the original title, "Out of Focus," and a secretary misheard it, wrote it as "Auto Focus," and an errant movie title was born.) "Out of Focus" would be more fitting: the movie's miswritten, misdirected, and a big mistake.

The visual part of the movie is, in fact, one of the few successful elements here. We're looking first at mid-1960's Los Angeles, when Crane (Greg Kinnear) was a successful DJ for KNX, happily playing his drums on-air, blithely chatting the radio audience with exactly the same "I'm on the air" tone of voice as he has at home with his very 60's wife (poufy-haired Rita Wilson). The production design is perfect: the pastel, kitschy blandness of the L.A. scene matches the character's blandly pleasant personality. Every detail, every dish and painting, every cottage cheese ceiling and piece of ranch-style house décor brings us back to 1964 in L.A. Hey, a lot of L.A. still looks exactly the same, though they try real hard down there to move things along.

Auto Focus was written by Michael Gerbosi, based on a book published in 1993 called Auto Focus: The Murder of Bob Crane by journalist Michael Graysmith.

Poor Greg Kinnear. He is forced to play a completely facade-ridden man, and in the entire film he only has about a minute and a half of screen time in which he displays any real emotion. The film begins with some voice-over narration by Kinnear. Perhaps this is an homage to Sunset Boulevard, though the completely fictional Sunset Boulevard opens with the narrator's body floating in the pool and the film is basically a flashback. The Sunset Boulevard audience is kept totally interested in understanding what happened to the narrator, following the story and his down-the-drain development scene by scene. This is one of the important things missing from Auto Focus: an understanding of this character's descent. Instead, the film seemed to be a simple series of episodes in Crane's life, without any sort of pull or through story that ends up in the murder.

Crane didn't start pure and end up evil. As the screenplay has it, he starts out as a fake Mr. Nice Guy who lies to himself as well as his family: he's a church-going, self-described "one-woman man" who just happens to like sex a lot with as many women as possible. In the end this character flaw destroys two marriages, a career, and ultimately it seems to indirectly cause his own murder. The movie clearly demonstrates what is now called "sex addiction," but one has to wonder, Why? Why and how did Crane end up this way, and since there was no attention given to those questions by the moviemakers, Why did they choose to make this movie? Was it just to titillate the viewer? All the nudity and sex in this film (there is plenty of both) seemed just as false as Crane, in terms of erotic impact, so if titillation was the motivation, it sure failed in that department.

For some reason, at least two thirds of the film seemed to be played for its comedic potential. In a heavy-handed and clumsy way, the director, Paul Schrader (so often excellent as a writer with someone else directing) drags us through scene after scene, with no buildup of tension, no revelation of who Crane really is, no emotional dynamics, and therefore no central characters to be interested in. The only "real" person in the movie is Crane's well-meaning agent Lenny, carefully played by Rob Leibman so that his stereotype is suggested yet personalized and believable. One of only two or three somewhat-emotionally riveting scenes in the movie is between these two, when Crane has wandered into Lenny's office and Lenny is at a loss to help him. This is one of the rare times the audience has a chance to feel anything at all, and one feels not for the main character (we have no idea who he really is, what he really feels) but for this other man, his agent, of all people! (Another good scene is a credit to Maria Bello, the actor who plays Crane's second wife Anne, when she displays her ultimate frustrations and disgust with her husband.)

It's important to also note the standout performance of Willem Dafoe playing John Carpenter, the video-tech-freak who, early in his TV career befriends Crane and allegedly pulls him further down into the muck of porn. (Although, according to Graysmith's book, Carpenter doesn't actually meet Crane until he's finished with television and already quite a seedy guy.) Dafoe manages to display some shading, portraying a tension-filled creep who at least suggests some complexity to his character. In his last scene where Crane tells him over the phone that their relationship has to end, Dafoe goes way beyond a standard actor's response. He has little to say in the way of lines, but he manages to communicate something that has failed to happen in any other part of this film: he's been deeply affected by his relationship with Crane, and for once we know what someone up on the screen is really all about.

There are a couple of just awful sequences in this movie, where, for no good reason Crane spaces out and we are then showed what Crane is thinking about. This is the clumsiest sort of dramatic device, and it is awkwardly inserted in the movie without any sort of structural or dramatic grace. (At times this movie reminded me of a send-up of a movie, as on the Carol Burnett Show.) Three quarters of the way into it, we now had to get to the end, it seemed, so suddenly Schrader started utilizing a hand-held camera, crudely indicating to us that things were now shaky for our hero. Angelo Badalamenti's music (often used by David Lynch) became typically dark and foreboding (whereas earlier the music was light and spirited, aligned with the going-for-a-laugh attitude.) Oh, so now we know the violent end is near.

How disappointing. Making a biographical or historical movie is a real challenge in any case, because of the need to stay somewhat within the lines of factual reality. But the failure here is in the portrayal of the reality without any emotionally dramatic truth.

  Carol Saturansky

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