Paul Schrader Takes a Long, Hard Look at Bob Crane's Sex Obsession and Comes Up Limp
Director Paul Schrader thrives on self-imposed limitations. He shot a good portion of Patty Hearst from inside a darkened closet. The strict formalism of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is evident in its title. In Auto Focus, the limitation is the character--or rather, utter lack of character--of vacuously affable TV sitcom star Bob Crane, whose sexual obsessions led to the disintegration of his career and unsolved murder in 1978. As it turns out, that's one limitation too many and only the beginning of this fastidious misfire's many self-defeating problems.
When we first meet Crane (Greg Kinnear) in the early '60s, he is working as a cheery radio jock and has been married for 15 years to a swell gal named Anne (Rita Wilson) in a picture-perfect Hollywood home. Like the titular World War II POW he winds up playing in the unlikely sitcom smash Hogan's Heroes, Crane is the personification of unruffled, breezing through life unaware of anything but the slight pleasures in the immediate moment.
He befriends John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a pitiful grotesque of naked, unctuous need, a dealer in emerging video technology, and an eventual suspect in Crane's murder. Carpenter introduces Crane to the leaden joys of strip clubs, which leads to compulsive serial womanizing. In the time it takes to say "sex addict," the two are videotaping their multipartner sexual exploits.
Crane remains oblivious even as his increasingly sex-sullied reputation destroys his marketability as an actor. He marries and loses an unreasonably reasonable new wife named Patricia (Maria Bello). Hogan's Heroes is cancelled, and he's reduced to touring dinner theater gigs, which he uses to locate, bed, and videotape more faceless conquests. Mortally clueless, Crane chirps to his bloody end that "sex is healthy."
Schrader, working from Michael Gerbosi's screenplay, based on the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith, displays relentless integrity to his subject's increasingly deadened worldview. Everything--getting laid, getting fired, being interviewed by the editor of a Christian magazine--is shot with the same flattened affect, the visual equivalent of a What-Me-Worry? shrug.
Schrader's clinical method does harvest some seriously queasy scenes: a TV cooking-show appearance where Crane hits on audience members; Crane and Carpenter watching another taped orgy as they absently tug on their respective units. And Fred Murphy's smart cinematography creates an elegant visual arc, evolving from a vibrant aqua-and-oranges palette in early scenes to grim, almost colorless chiaroscuro tones for Crane's later dissolution.
All of this is effective for a spell, but Schrader's conviction of Crane's absolute emptiness is troubling on several levels, while his technique is simply bludgeoning.
With the exception of the abused child-to-emotionally-wrecked adult in Affliction, Schrader doesn't seem much interested in deep psychology, despite a career-long fascination with severely twisted characters. (Recall the incest at the core of his remake of Cat People, or Travis Bickle's memorable rants in Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver.) Here, the director doesn't seem to want us to understand Crane as much as watch him screw his way to hell as an object lesson in the obvious. (All we learn about Crane's childhood is that he was a "good boy.") There's a whiff of sadism in his unsparing portrayal of Crane, as if Schrader is using him as target practice for his own obsessions. When Crane and Carpenter bicker like an old married couple, it's a joke we're supposed to enjoy from the director's apparently superior moral perch.
In one scene that would have helped the film enormously had its director elaborated on it, Carpenter helps set up a shot for maximum intensity, like any director designing an effective scene. By showing he's aware that he shares, to whatever degree, Crane's obsessions, Schrader takes some of the judgmental heat off his subject and redirects it to himself--after all, he's shooting a sex film, too. But Schrader is earnest, not self-referential; the scene ends, and so much for that.
Almost balancing out Schrader's voyeuristic damning of another voyeur is Kinnear, one of the most intrinsically likable guys in the movies. Unlike his director--or, to give Schrader the benefit of the doubt, in contrast to his director's approach--Kinnear keeps finding endless variations on boyish befuddlement. With no telegraphing ticks, he gets across the sense that Crane is able to understand incoming data--he's just unable to digest it, or is, for some reason, wary of doing so. Kinnear's ability to locate a germ of recognizable humanity in this pathologically horny hollow man is what keeps your eyes on the screen, even after your tolerance for his aimless rutting fades. Schrader's real subject is, as in many of his films, the secretive, lonely hells men damn themselves to, but the director makes his point in the film's first half-hour--the rest of Auto Focus is just punishing.