Going into a screening of Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus" at the Boston Film Festival, I honestly had very little knowledge about the details of the life of Bob Crane. I knew the basic outline, but I really knew nothing that someone couldn't tell me in a few minutes. Maybe it would have helped to, say, have read the book the film is based on (Robert Graysmith's The Murder of Bob Crane) so I could've appreciated it a little more; walking out of the film I knew nothing new.
Greg Kinnear plays Bob Crane, a radio talk show host and actor who has just landed the title role on the soon to be famous TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes". Under his all-American surface, he's secretly into taking nude photography and reading dirty magazines. On the set, he meets someone who shares his interests: video technology guru John Carpenter (played by William Dafoe, and no, no relation to the famous horror director). Carpenter shows him the nightlife, and what's more, new equipment that lets one film home movies. I'm sure you can guess what Crane would film, and how it would begin to conflict with his career and his wife's (Anne Crane, played by Rita Wilson) interests. Some time down the road, while in the middle of an argument with Carpenter about trying to get out of the whole pornography business, Crane is found beaten to death in a motel.
What, exactly, was Paul Schrader's reason for making this film? "Auto Focus" has nothing much to share with its audience; no secrets, no insights, only a handful of very good performances, the highlight of which is Wlliem Dafoe's appropriately creepy portrayal of John Carpenter. But unfortunately, content wise, "Auto Focus" gives us a whole lot of nothing wrapped in fancy packaging.
I certainly never felt like I was peeking into the real life of Bob Crane. The film is so busy making sure it looks like it's being inventive, and possibly experimental, with the way it is bringing us its story. As was the main problem with "Road to Perdition", Paul Schrader relies on his camera to tell the story, not his storytelling skill. For example, during the last act of the film, the camerawork abruptly changes from the purposely tacky and colorful to shaky, grainy handheld. Here, Schrader is telling us that we have hit the "disturbing" portion of the film. However, I was not disturbed but straining to keep my eyes focused on the main actors who were constantly drifting in and out of the frame.
Thus presents another problem with the film. "Auto Focus" thinks much more of itself than it actually is. It takes plenty of time tooting its own horn, but when it all boils down, there's practically no way to care for anyone in the picture. The principal characters are drowned in derivative stylism, and all of the supporting characters are all there to basically look concerned about or angry at Crane. Plus, even though the camera may be telling us differently, the dramatic arc of the film is bent all out of shape. Conflicts arise here and there, but they are soon forgotten, and the cycle repeats itself. This means that there is little or no buildup to Crane's murder, leaving us indifferent when the event actually occurs. But then again, Crane seems to be as well; how can we care when the victim himself says "I love breasts!" and "Carpenter was the murderer" with the same spunk?
This is not to say that "Auto Focus" does not have its merits. It practically blasts off, and for about half of the film, the style actually helps to forward the story. But unfortunately, it fizzles out towards the end. I cannot give an honest recommendation for the film, but it's not awful. It's just a little too out of focus.