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Auto Focus

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Auto Focus

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe
Director: Paul Schrader
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: October 2002
Genres: Drama, Erotica

*Also starring: Maria Bello, Marieh Delfino, Alex Meneses, Rita Wilson

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

If Andrew Niccol's "Simone" could be taken as a sendup of the corruptibility of film audiences by celebrities, then Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus" would be an incisive portrayal of how an audience can corrupt a celebrity. "Auto Focus," an adaptation by Michael Gerbosi of Robert Graysmith's book "The Murder of Bob Crane," is about a kid who stays in the picture. The only trouble is that the picture he stays in is the wrong one; a fatal error. Since we know the story's conclusion before we go into the theater (it's based on the true story of the murder of a popular TV personality allegedly by his best friend), we do not enjoy the suspense of wondering what will happen next. We have something better. We watch Greg Kinnear in his most complex role, a dynamite performance by the way, and we are drawn in by the incremental steps through which a clean-living alpha male meets his doom by a failure to resist temptation. While the majority of stars of stage, screen and TV do not become hooked on cocaine, or compulsive sex, or alcohol, many do. In that sense, "Auto Focus" lets us in on a case study of how once-decent guys can lose their integrity, their families, even their fortune by hanging out with the wrong people or by taking audience adulation too much to heart.

Though a bio-pic, "Auto Focus" avoids the deadly didacticism associated with docu-drama. With music by Angelo Badalamenti ("Mulholland Drive") to reflect the upbeat feeling that inhabits the major part of the film, switching to a tense score as Bob Crane's career goes rapidly downhill, Paul Schrader's picture punctuates the fragility of the famous while at the same time indicating how all of Crane's wrong moves were brought upon himself. Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) believed, like Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, that all you need to succeed is to be likable, and considering the success he was enjoying, you can't really blame him for being oblivious to signs of decay: a moving from his passion for grapefruit juice straight-up to alcohol; a falling away from both of his wives and his children; a growing arrogance and belief that he could say anything at any time and allow a Teflon protection to ward off rumblings.

We watch Bob Crane, a stunning and exuberant radio personality, get the job of his life through his agent, Lenny (Ron Leibman). He becomes the titled Hogan's hero of one of the most popular TV shows of his time, one that ran from 1965 to 1971, serving as a precursor, if you will, to comedies like "The Producers" in that "Hogan's Heroes" made light of Nazi prisoner-of-war camps. When Crane runs into the nerdy John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) in a studio lot (in much the way that Viktor Taransky gets hustled by Hank in "Simone"), he is attracted to Carpenter's ingenuity with electronics, particularly with a new invention called video recording. Becoming buddy- buddy with Carpenter, he joins this fellow in some hot parties, attracting the bimbos that are always flattered by attention from the stars. Soon they're making porno movies highlighting their games with these women not for sale but just for their amusement a hobby which breaks up his family when his devoted wife Anne (Rita Wilson) discovers these extracurricular activities. A failed marriage does not prevent Crane from an intimate friendship with Patricia (Maria Bello), an actress in "Hogan's Heroes," leading to a second marriage, which appears doomed since Bob cannot break away from his sex compulsions.

"Auto Focus" is blessed with Kristina Boden's sharp editing, bringing the characters into dazzling closeups to accentuate the likable blandness of Bob Crane and the scuzziness and, at base, the loneliness of his friend Lenny who is so dependent on Bob for bringing in the women who add spice to his constricted life. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, "Auto Focus" does not make gender distinctions. As Bob becomes determined to straighten out his life, he is forced to break off his friendship with Lenny leading to disastrous consequences. This is an important movie, one that could have you looking at some of the big names of screen and TV today, wondering whether there is some truth to the malicious gossip spewed by supermarket tabloids.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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