Auto Focus (2002)
"It's up to you, but either way I'm gonna shoot."
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After viewing Paul Schrader's fantastic new film Auto Focus, I felt so dirty that I needed to rush home and take a shower.
While this movie's main character is Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane (beautifully played by an energetic Greg Kinnear), Auto Focus is a film about addiction. So while you may not leave this movie feeling you know more about Crane the man, you will experience that which dragged this likable TV personality into the depths of destruction.
Auto Focus begins pre-Hogan's Heroes as we're introduced to loving family man and radio personality Bob Crane. While Crane enjoys his job, he aspires for something greater. Things look up when his agent hooks him up with a screen test for a new sitcom. That sitcom would be Hogan's Heroes, and it would change his life forever. Before long, Crane befriends video technology specialist John Carpenter (played with creepy glee by Willem Dafoe), and their friendship leads Crane down a path of sexual addiction that proves to be fatal in more ways then one.
Paul Schrader is a seasoned pro when it comes to delving into the minds of withdrawn characters (see the brilliant Taxi Driver). His take on Crane is extremely interesting because he never chooses to make a villain out of the sitcom star. This is a story about a normal, decent guy who not only falls into a deviate lifestyle for no apparent reason, but doesn't seem to see anything wrong with it. Schrader isn't necessarily interested in telling us why Crane went in this direction, and the truth is, there probably isn't a reason. Sometimes, people just do things because they can. Was he seduced by the power of celebrity? Was he bored with his everyday life? Who knows. Schrader expertly gives us an intimate and ugly glimpse into the world of addiction.
Schrader is also a wizard when it comes to recreating scenes from Hogan's Heroes. The numerous recreations in this picture are very detailed and more than impressive.
As well directed and written as this picture is, Kinnear is also a big key to Auto Focus being as effective as it is. His sheer likability and charisma keep Crane from becoming a disgusting, one dimensional parody. This is a fully textured character, and in the end, I felt sorry for Crane, even though I was fully aware that all the bad things happening to him, were because of his own doing. Kinnear is able to convey the sympathy factor even when he's engaging in all this naughty behavior. Willem Dafoe also soars as the creepy, lonely Carpenter. In the early goings on, he appears to be the devil leading a helpless Crane down a self destructive path, but in the end, he's nothing more then a sad, lonely soul, who has to leech onto others to feel important. And through it all, Crane and Carpenter were true friends in every sense of the word. The supporting cast is also stellar; featuring fantastic work from Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Liebman, Michael Rodgers, Kurt Fuller, and Bruce Solomon.
Auto Focus is depressing, grim, and provocative. It's also very funny, even if it's subject matter is nothing to laugh at. Schrader, Kinnear, and Dafoe have made an extremely effective tale about an odd, volatile friendship and a life altering addiction. This is one of the year's best films.
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