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November 16, 2003
Movie Review: Auto Focus (2002)

What an odd film; it plays like a twisted version of Rock Star without the third act. If it weren't a true story, you'd almost suspect it was written by Focus on the Family as an R-rated Afternoon Special-sort of cautionary tale. Don't peek at nudie magazines because this could happen to you!

Greg Kinnear plays Bob Crane, the star of "Hogan's Heroes" whose TV success haunted him until his murder in Phoenix in the mid-70s. Kinnear is excellent, as is Willem Dafoe as John Carpenter, the man whose sycophantic friendship allowed Crane to give free reign to the worst of his sexual demons by supplying him with the video equipment and the girls to keep a constant party rolling. Where most movies of this type use drugs or alcohol as the addiction, Auto Focus uses sex and pornography. The entire movie centers on the sick relationship between Crane and Carpenter, right up to the murder that Carpenter's always been suspected of committing.

Other cast members include Rita Wilson as Crane's first wife, Maria Bello as his second wife who discovers that the first wife may have had the right idea, Ron Liebman as Crane's agent, and a dead-on impersonation of Colonel Klink/Werner Klemperer by Kurt Fuller. None of these performances matter much, although all are good; what matters is Crane, Carpenter, and as many naked women as you can fit into an R-rated movie.

While I found the relationship between Kinnear and Dafoe compelling -- both men give outstanding performances in outside-the-box roles for each -- it wasn't enough to overcome two big problems with the movie. First off, it wasn't difficult to see where the movie would be heading. We've seen the addict-hitting-bottom trope in many movies now, and as a result, Auto Focus is almost deadly predictable. The second problem is the constant sex and nudity. I'm no prude, or at least I don't think I am (do prudes ever think they're prudes? Probably not). Nudity doesn't bother me, and neither does sex in cinema. But there was just so much of it, and it was so relentlessly tawdry, that each new sexual encounter invoked dread, rather than sympathy or titillation. Not this again! The movie wants to show Crane as a man trapped by his sexual obsession, which it does, but I also felt trapped by it.

In the end, Crane can't manage to escape his obsession; it kills him, just as surely as it destroyed his career and his personal life. Auto Focus can't escape it, either. It never transcends its essentially voyeuristic position, clucking its tongue at Crane's sexual excess while exploiting it at the same time. Worth a look, but don't spend a lot of money on it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 16, 2003 8:48 PM

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