Hogan goes hardcore
Auto Focus charts Bob Crane's life from sitcom star to DIY porn king
Auto Focus is a candy-coated Hardcore that puts a zanier spin on serial, addictive sex. The film is a smutty autobiography of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane, who had a secret sex life making amateur porn, and had a death tailor-made for a Paul Schrader script, with his brain matter decorating a hotel wall.
From its cocktail hour pastel opening credits to its relentlessly peppy world view even amidst orgies and serial infidelity, Auto Focus offers a familiar tongue-in-cheek treatment of a supposedly more innocent time sub-floored with a surfeit of hanky panky. With its jokey ambiance that may strike some Schrader fans as out of character, considering the director's usual funereal seriousness, Auto Focus parallels this year's other kitschy Hollywood meta-bio, The Kid Stays in the Picture. There are churning gobs of message in Auto Focus, though they are often trod under a glib veneer you could wipe off with a Kleenex.
Auto Focus opens with Crane deep in the throes of a churchgoing family life, promising his suspicious wife (Rita Wilson) that he will toss out the dirty magazines piling up in the garage. But the cardigan and Everly Brothers-style '60s soon segue into an era of anything goes, and Crane willfully insistently loses his head in the skanky Hollywood semi-scene of the late '60s and '70s.
Sycophantic techie-to-the-stars John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) is Crane's enabler who lures him, hardly kicking and screaming, away from domesticity. They are an unlikely pair of fuck buddies who are almost touching in their devotion to two-musketeer cocksmanship.
A deep '70s ambience of shag carpets, baguette-sized remotes, beer stein collections and man-jewelry gives Auto Focus an often deeply pleasurable campiness matched in the spectacle of Crane on the set of "Hogan's Heroes," amidst a Madame Tussaud display of ersatz Colonel Klinks and Sergeant Schultzes.
Falling deeper and deeper from recreational sex into a kind of addictive, blinding sex fog, Crane and constant sidekick "Carpy" (as in carpe diem) use Crane's minor celebrity as chick bait in their fraternal tag team of sexual adventurism.
In Auto Focus, Schrader's Calvinist moralism mixes with a more therapy-centered message about the soulless undertow of addiction. The pretense of sexual liberation offered in the '60s becomes a sticky glue trap of videotape-dependent sex. Crane and Carpenter must now religiously document their activities and seem increasingly unable to get it up unless the camera is on. Schrader nimbly renders this omnivorous sex vortex and a kind of anti-pleasure undertow couched inside the increasingly perfunctory pleasures that have Crane's tastes slipping from the ecstasy of a gourmand into the fast-food chow-shoveling of pure bodily need.
Dafoe as the slimeball pal who turns Crane onto the wonders of tape and "group gropes" offers one of the year's most memorable performances. While Kinnear plays Crane as a lackluster, white bread breast man who does some mental gymnastics to transform his sex addiction into good clean fun, Dafoe's Carpy has a truly tragic dimension. A Hollywood bottom-feeder desperate for the validation of the glitterati whose sound systems he installs, Carpy comes to depend upon Crane's increasingly elusive celebrity for any sense of worth.
For all its tantalizing forays into the narcotic, head-swimming loss of self and perspective in addiction, Auto Focus never quite extends its sympathy to its characters or convinces us that they are real people. Instead, Schrader continually references the novelty value of a fallen sitcom star getting his squeaky clean TV facade soiled in the filth of real life.
The film's lowest point finds the pair, aimless and bored, jerking off while making small talk as they watch one of their video efforts in Crane's basement "play room." For its realistic portrait of the often repressed love between buddies and how someone like Crane could lose his moorings in a world that promises sex, celebrity and youth will cure all, Auto Focus manages to court greatness amidst its high artifice.