Directed by Paul Schrader

With Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson and Maria Bello

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics


Thanks to VH-1’s “Behind The Music” and the E! Channel’s “True Hollywood Stories,” cautionary tales about the film and music industries have become one of the classic narratives of our culture. First, there is the rise to stardom. Second, the euphoric rush of fame, followed by the realization that it has its downside. Third, the descent into alcohol and drugs. Fourth, death or (if the star is particularly lucky) recovery and a comeback conveniently timed with the show’s airing. The formula has been lived by many a movie or rock star, but it’s still a formula. And its value as a warning is fading pretty quickly, if it ever existed:  the appeal of stardom is stronger than ever, even if Britney Spears will probably be a trivia question by 2007.

In 1964, Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) hosts a radio show and works as a part-time actor. His agent (Ron Leibman) offers him a script for a TV pilot, HOGAN’S HEROES. Crane’s wife Anne (Rita Wilson), perhaps foreseeing Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, is offended by the idea of a “Holocaust comedy,” but she eventually agrees that the material is funny. Once the show gets underway, it becomes a hit, ranking first among the new shows of 1965. Crane meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a high-tech audio and video specialist, and befriends him. Far less innocent, Carpenter challenges Crane’s staid family life by taking him to strip clubs.

Just as marijuana supposedly leads to heroin, the plot of AUTO FOCUS is a series of steps down the path to Hell. Photography leads to pornography: Crane justifies the nudie mags his wife finds in the garage by saying he owns them only because he’s interested in their pictures. (She doesn’t buy it.) Playing drums on the radio leads to playing them in strip clubs. Video leads to folie a deux, wild one-night stands and orgies, rather than innocuous home movies . As in BOOGIE NIGHTS, video is the real villain in AUTO FOCUS. In thirty years, Schrader’s future counterpart is bound to make a film showing how Internet porn led to a present-day celebrity’s downfall.

Never the warmest writer (he’s claimed that TAXI DRIVER is partially autobiographical) or director, Schrader’s Calvinist roots show in AUTO FOCUS. Without Kinnear, it would be a one-dimensional morality play. With Kinnear, it takes on a full two dimensions. The actor plays Crane as a wide-eyed innocent.  His voice has the professional bonhomie of a DJ, yet his enthusiasm never seems forced. Most impressively,  Kinnear never allows Crane to lose his essential innocence. Even when the bills have to be paid and disenchantment starts to set in, he still acts as though the world owes him a living.  When called on his sex life, he insists that he’s simply acting on a normal guy’s urges. The film’s final words are “Men got to have fun.” Crane comes damn close to going to his grave believing that there’s little more to life.

In an interview included in the AUTO FOCUS press kit, Schrader says he was attracted to Bob Crane’s story both because “two men get involved in conduct that probably neither would have done alone” and that sexual addiction makes “Crane become progressively clueless about how he hurts people, how selfish he is.” Carpenter and Crane turn out to be a faithful couple; their relationship lasts longer than the latter’s two marriages. They bicker infrequently, and since they don’t expect monogamy from each other, sexual jealousy doesn’t enter the picture. There’s only one example of overt homoeroticism, when Crane has a fit of homosexual panic over a video of a “group-grope” in which he says Carpenter grope his ass. Nevertheless, the subtext of their friendship is unmistakable. The finale suggests that tragedy strikes because it’s about to come to an end, although I find it more ambiguous than some have.

Schrader evokes the 60s and 70s fairly subtly. Crane’s short hairstyle never changes, nor is the soundtrack filled with wall-to-wall rock hits. (Anyway, Crane prefers jazz: his hero is Gene Krupa.) AUTO FOCUS seems to be set in a timeless world of male sexual privilege, where celebrity is all one needs to get laid every day of the year. But whatever larger point it makes about sex and masculinity gets lost in the secondhand vision of fame as a highway to hell. Ironically,  Kinnear got his start on the E! Channel. He’s now come full circle.