"Auto Focus" is a film that inadvertently asks the question Why was I made? Like any work of art, a film to be worthwhile must have some resonance, a quality that exists beyond just the lives of the people in it, so that we in the audience can experience an insight into our own lives, a lesson, a quandary to perplex us and challenge our brains or hearts. "Auto Focus" is a superficial, badly-directed film about people who have nothing to teach us, who give us nothing to study, and aren't even interesting to watch.
The story of Bob Crane, the Los Angeles radio host who became Col. Hogan of the television series "Hogan's Heroes" and then lived out the rest of his short life making home videos of his sex life, at the cost of two marriages and his own life, if it is to be made into a movie, cries out for a director like David Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan. But Paul Schrader, who made his bones as the screenwriter of Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," has in fifteen films as director shown less talent than your aunt Elsa might show for rodeo bull riding. In fact this movie looks and sounds like a sitcom, albeit without the laugh track and without the jokes.
Briefly, it is the story of a charming man with a likable face and no real acting talent - played well here by Greg Kinnear - picked unexpectedly to star in a television series that becomes a 6-year hit. At the same time he is latched onto by the parasite John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, badly miscast and without a clue as to how to play the role), a video engineer who obtains home equipment for Crane's use and then joins him in the orgies. As Crane's career goes down the tubes, Carpenter supposedly becomes paranoid enough to murder his friend (the film strongly implies this), though he was later tried and acquitted. End of film.
The script, by Michael Gerbasi, is no help; riddled with embarrassingly bad dialogue and static scenes of exposition, it gives the actors nothing to work with. And Schrader's direction is flatly staged and has no forward thrust. There is no texture to the film; what you see is what you get. And the orgy sequences - obviously shot so as to avoid rating trouble and hide any hint of actual sex - are so dull we wonder if even a cocksman as relentless as Crane wouldn't get bored after a while. Maria Bello and Rita Wilson, as Crane's two wives, who are essentially in the film to make plot points, are fine in their limited roles; and Ron Liebman, as Crane's agent, is the one interesting actor in the film. We keep hoping to see more of him. In future, would someone please keep the camera out of Schrader's hands? Thank you.