Auto Focus begins in 1965 with the dawn of the "classic" TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes. Meet family man Bob Crane: the picture of likability and easy charm and -- as Colonel Robert Hogan -- the star of the show. At an early press junket, a reporter asks Crane a few questions about the new show, concluding with something like "So if you liked World War II, you'll love Hogan's Heroes?" The reporter gets up to leave abruptly, and when Crane asks what's wrong, the reporter, offended, answers, "I'm a Jew." After this, the film never returns to the issue. See, Auto Focus is a film that wormishly exposes the secret sexual underbelly of an otherwise bland and innocuous television personality, but I think the real scandal is how any well-paid executive at a major television network (CBS) could think that a sitcom about wacky misadventures in a Nazi POW camp is a good idea. Why doesn't somebody make a movie about that? It seems like the worst TV idea ever -- with all due respect to My Mother the Car, Cop Rock, and The Geena Davis Show -- and yet Hogan's Heroes ran fairly successfully until 1971. Alas.
Auto Focus, however, isn't about Hogan's Heroes or Bob Crane's career (good thing). It is a movie about a man's descent and the friendship that precipitates the downward spiral of our -- ahem -- hero. Crane's Mephistopheles is new buddy John Carpenter (played by Willem Dafoe and not to be confused with the horror director of the same name). A tech wizard, John knows all the latest in stereos and cameras. Crane, a photography buff, as it were, takes quickly to Carpenter, who seems to make a business of knowing just enough celebrities to keep ahead with his job at Sony and where all the hot strip clubs are. Before long, Crane is playing drums for strip shows by night, rehearsing and filming Hogan's by day, and neglecting his family in between.
Meanwhile, Carpenter has introduced Crane to the joys of home movies, sexual conquests, and combinations of the two. A swinger is born, and the consequences catch up fast. Wife Anne (stately Rita Wilson) finds his collection of photos of him with other women and asks, "How many women are there?" The question is mostly irrelevant, really, and Crane probably couldn't begin to guess anyway. Hogan's Heroes is soon canceled, and Crane must make do with his limited talents and a growing reputation as an indiscreet Hollywood pervert (agent Lenny, played with excellent moral reserve by Ron Leibman, admonishes him on the set for showing his dirty photo album to -- gasp! -- Donna Reed!). His last big break, ironically the Disney family comedy Superdad, flops and by the time he's touring the dinner-theater circuit and appearing on a has-been-celebrity cooking show, he is already emotionally bankrupt. All the while, his constant companion is John Carpenter, whose unflagging dedication is matched only by his unwavering libido.
There is an intended emotional hollowness to Auto Focus that somehow plays more disturbingly than other sexual-nightmare parables like Fatal Attraction or anything with Richard Gere. Crane's unending conquests are so detached and passionless that one almost longs for the eroticism of a simple kiss. The film's only true passion is in the relationship between Crane and Carpenter, alternating between macho camaraderie and homoerotic longing -- by Carpenter. While reviewing footage of one evening's festivities, Crane, panicked, catches a glimpse of Carpenter's hand on his backside. "It's an orgy!" Carpenter defends. Dafoe -- intense as always -- is sad and pitiable as the best friend who, unaware, wants just a little more.
Greg Kinnear, a deceptively complicated leading man with a superficial edge, is ideally cast as the compromised Crane: valueless, empty. His winning smile and vast charm are perfectly suited to the growing desperation of a man needing badly to be liked and wanted. Director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Affliction) traces his corruption with gritty elegance, gradually trading bright cheerful colors for dirtier tones and jerkier angles with each passing scene. Auto Focus, aptly titled to suggest Crane's automated exploits and ambiguous moral focus, succeeds with understated brilliance in revealing the darker side of mediocre celebrity and unglamorous sex.