Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Out of Focus

Auto Focus
Written by Michael Gerbosi
Adapted from Robert Graysmith's book "The Murder of Bob Crane"
Directed by Paul Schrader

Rated R — for strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use, violence.
Official Web site

"Auto Focus," the chronicle of "Hogan's Heroes" star Robert Crane and his unsolved murder, contains all the juicy elements: sex, perversion, pornography, violent murder, celebrity and the titillation that it's all a true story. So how does the creator of "Taxi Driver" and "American Gigolo" take all these elements and create something so boring? Bland direction, tepid writing and tedious performances have conspired to leave the audience comatose.

Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) lends a wisecracking charm on his popular '60s radio program when CBS presents him with a quizzical offer: to star in a sitcom situated in a WWII POW camp. Both he and his Donna Reed-type wife (Rita Wilson) find the concept offensive, a "career killer," until they read the funny pilot for "Hogan's Heroes." Bob jumps on board and makes history on the blockbuster TV show which brings him instant fame.

The celebrity and money allows Bob to practice his hobby that has always tantalized him: pornography. His recognition drags women of every class into his bedroom while his fortune is spent on purchasing cameras and video equipment to record his frequent anonymous sexual conquests. His constant companion, John Carpenter (Willem DaFoe), supplies the girls and the equipment, feeding off Bob's celebrity in return.

When the show leaves the air, Bob sinks lower into despair. He and John spend night after night at orgies, photographing every moment to watch later in the darkness of their room together.

Auto Focus

Who thought that this would be interesting entertainment? The depravity was not the element that turned me off, but instead the triviality in which it was presented. First-time writer Michael Gerbosi and acclaimed director Paul Schrader rush through some scenes like they're chucking a hot potato and linger on other shots like the secrets of the universe are embedded on the walls.

Most of the actors put no weight on the situations. Kinnear, a very talented personality, mugs his way through the role, never keying into why Crane allowed the underpinnings of pornography to tackle him. DaFoe is creepy enough as the sleazy Carpenter. Carpenter could have easily been Crane's stalker had Crane had the good sense to brush the man off in the first place. DaFoe projects a menacing enthusiasm that's refreshing, while the rest of the film just lugs behind him. But the Carpenter character is too much a loser upon which to base an entire film.

Wilson and Maria Bello, as Crane's two wives, are given no time to establish rich characters. They seem to fit into the two stereotypical prototypes of virgin wife and whore wife. Bello's character tells her future husband that she understands her husband's needs to have sex with many women — but why? Is she desperate, insecure or a swinger? We're given hearsay instead of delving into the personality of this woman. By the same token, Wilson comes off as a prude — there's no clarity as to what she ever saw in Crane.

The main question is why did they make this film in the first place? Crane was an unspectacular actor who didn't accomplish enough for us to care about his downfall. Unlike Anissa Jones (the child star of "Family Affair") who died at age 18 of a drug overdose — an innocent corrupted by fast Hollywood vampires — Crane wasn't that decent a guy in the beginning. If he was, the film definitely doesn't demonstrate it through the plot, nor through Kinnear's characterization.

The film was produced by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. I wonder why they didn't write the script. Their adaptations on the lives of bad director Ed Wood and pornographer Larry Flynt were incisive, witty and innovative, everything this film isn't. A film as precarious as this needed the vibrant touch of another '70s director. In the hands of the late Bob Fosse, "Auto Focus" could have truly dazzled, instead of fizzling.

Review by Jonas Schwartz.

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