These days people can't seem to leave crappy enough alone. Everyone's always tabloid-like in everyone else's bee's wax to the point that I actually got Paparazzi-ed the other day by some guy working for E!'s True Hollywood Story, and I'm not even famous! Just on the off chance I might end up that way, this Photographer was just being on the safe side. See what I mean? It's to the point now, ladies and germs, that we've run out of prurient under-the-sheets gossip about our current crop of celebrities that they have to go searching for dirty laundry on everyone else. And when that fails we go back in time to the past to dig up some dirt!
Hey, I guess anything to keep from talking about the Kyoto Treaty, right?
The digging got interesting when the up-till-now only whispered about Super Secret life of actor Bob Crane the star of such timeless classics (sarcasm, mine) as Superdad and The Bob Crane Show (genius casting on the latter, no?)! Like most of us, my main exposure to the fellow was as the star of the defiantly humorous Hogan's Heroes! Aside from Acting, Bob was a devout Catholic, a Family Man, a devoted husband and, according to the Paul Schrader-directed Biopic Auto Focus, a major, major perv!
Based on Author Robert Graysmith's non-fictional (we think) book The Murder of Bob Crane, Michael Gerbosi's screenplay is sort of a hodge-podge between Biography, Behind-the-Scenes Sitcom expose, actual sitcom, and dark morality play. The personality disorders are shared by the vision of Director Schrader (American Gigolo) who seemed to be formulating at least two movies in his head as he shaped Crane's life into this memorial Urn. It seems that Old Col. Hogan (played here superbly by old Greg Kinnear) had a taste for amateur photography, at least as an excuse to look at more Porno than Ron Jeremy has laid eyes on.
Through this love for the naughty and his connections made through the ground-breaking Hogan's Heroes job, Bob-o meets John Carpenter (No, not that John Carpenter... he was a late 60's pre-Beta and VHS Video Geek played by Willem Dafoe). The up-to-now look-don't-touch Crane now finds himself playing with videotape, becoming more and more of a Philm Phreak and, incidentally, taking part in and filming Orgies while the little woman (Rita Wilson) is watching the Kiddos!
Anyone who's seen an episode of Entertainment Tonight or Hollywood Babylon or any other Mensa-Style Intelligentsia TV knows what ultimately happened to Bob Crane in Real Life, so watching the downward spiral of his life is as predictable as the boat sinking at the end of Titanic. As time goes on we see Crane and Carpenter floundering in lives of excess as both their respective careers languish in lackluster locales for years upon years. There aren't that many surprises.
However, it's the acting here that keeps Auto Focus interesting! Kinnear wouldn't have been Casting Agent Kneumsi's first choice to play Bob Crane. He seems a lot too wide-eyed and innocent to achieve the knowing smirk of Hogan. How wrong I'd have been, because Kinnear is incredible. He's shown a remarkable range in such films as Loser (not kidding) as a real bird's turd, and As Good as it Gets as a sympathetic good-guy next door. Here he's able to show Bob Crane's sleazy side, but he tempers that performance with an inner good-guy that is really trying to do his best in so many of the things he does. He also portrays the characters Bob Crane played in a very similar way to the original guy. Oh, the cockiness feels a little forced sometimes on Kinnear's face, but he's pretty much Bob Crane in the Hogan's Heroes reenactments! Likewise, Dafoe is remarkable in his addition of pathos to a pretty raunchy and devilish figure. The audience really is able to feel for old John when his heart breaks like Crane's Video Camera! Maria Bello (as always) makes the most out of her role as Patricia Olson (she played Sigrid Valdis on Hogan's Heroes). Naturally, whether offering a romantic diatribe about the lessons of the Peace Corps in Volunteers, eating Stevie Weber in an episode of Tales from the Crypt, or putting up with a Hubby with a collection of auto-focused Polaroids of prurience, Rita Wilson is a good actress! She isn't given a whole lot here, but she does a good job with it.
Unfortunately the acting is not all around perfection, either by director intent, or mediocrity in performances. Kurt Fuller looks acts and sounds every bit as much like Werner Klemperer as Danny DeVito looks, acts and sounds like Shaq O'Niell! Lyle Kanouse is marginally better, but nearly invisible as John Banner, and Michael E. Rodgers' Richard Dawson almost feels as if he's being played as a caricature for laughs. Survey Says? Oh, I don't know, man! Aside from Crane and Carpenter all the characters are pretty thin and feel like set-dressing to back the ever-changing shape of Auto Focus. Possibly as an intended antidote for the lack of development, the cast is peppered by Cameos by recognizable actors like Ed Begley Jr., Catherine Dent and Michael McKean!
While this film is watchable and enjoyable (especially in the realms of acting, wall-to-wall-to-ceiling-to-floor nudity and period accuracy) Auto Focus ultimately falls flat and feels a little forced. It's true that to tell a story of this kind and to hold interest a certain schizophrenia has to enter in to make the viewer laugh, feel for the characters and still tell a true story, but here it feels almost as if there were three movies going on. At times, this film was a comedy, at times a stark drama, and at one point, I kid you not, it falls into Horror Flick ClichÚs that... hmmmm... don't mesh at all with the bio-picture this really is, downfall phase or not. I like the mixing of genres more than anyone I know, but here genres don't mix and layer so much as they float above the plot like a last minute change in tone. This certainly doesn't make for a bad movie at all, and Auto Focus is never, ever "Boring," but the overall outcome of the final cut is also not quite excellent!
As an aside, I found myself wondering what Bob Crane's family and heirs would think of this film, as Bob is made to look ultimately very nasty in spite of Kinnear's oblivious acting. I couldn't help but feel that this was a padded-out episode of Bob Crane: The E! True Hollywood Story slapped onto the screen with enough smear to titillate the crud crowd and irritate the family. Silly me, Bob Crane Jr. himself pops up in a small role as an interviewer!
Three Stars out of Five for Auto Focus. As enjoyable as the film is in acting, it never feels cohesive as a movie in its own right, feeling like a sitcom/ horror/ biography with a side of Sleaze for the tabloid viewer in all of us! If you're in to digging up the past for a giggle at Hollywood as Babylon then this big screener is for you! They should have had Tony Curtis Narrate this one. Now that would have been funny! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go buy the complete first season of Hogan's Heroes on DVD! I tell you what, That Colonel Klink! What will that guy do next? Maybe Hogan!
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