Auto Focus Is a Dark Tale of Celebrity for Our Age

By Robert Silva


“Guys gotta have fun,” Bob Crane says after destroying his life at the end of Auto Focus. It’s as if he could do it all over again, he would.

In a time in which the double lives of celebrities have exploded into public view, it’s worth revisiting Auto Focus, an unlikely biopic about our addictive relationship to images – and the extremes of male desire.

Greg Kinnear stars as actor Bob Crane, who gained household fame on the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Originally a radio host, Crane is offered the starring role on the 1960s Nazi prison-camp farce. His wife, played by Rita Wilson (real-life wife of actor Tom Hanks), is understandably concerned about it being perceived as a “Holocaust comedy.” But the jokes are good, and the audience accepts the premise: It’s all in good humor.

“Likability is 90 percent of the battle,” Bob tells the viewer in voiceover. “Well, that’s me. I’m a likable guy."

And Bob is charming, tongue-in-cheek. He’s also superficial: Everything he says seems calculated for effect, capable of being taken two different ways. He’s a pleaser, and perhaps most of all he wants to please himself.

As Crane’s star rises, Willem Dafoe appears as Crane’s needy enabler, audio-visual guru John Carpenter. He introduces Bob to early video equipment, and equips Bob with a primitive precursor to the camcorder.

“It’s the Polaroid of home movies!” Bob enthuses to his wife, while privately grasping the erotic potential of the new technology.

It becomes a habit: After the shooting day wraps, Bob and John hit the bars for an all-consuming and never-ending search for sex, often covertly videotaped for after-hours analysis. Bob keeps a binder with photographs of his conquests. (He likes to keep records.) This pursuit consumes his life, although he maintains his chipper and even-keel demeanor throughout.

As directed by Paul Schrader, who’s plumbed the depths of male obsession before in his screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the story of Bob Crane is a moral tale with the disarming skin of a comedy. This is a rise and fall story, but not a typical one. It begins as a satiric comedy, filmed in high-gloss Technicolor, and disintegrates into a hand-held, cautionary tale narrated by a man who can’t see himself. Bob is obsessed with images, but blind to his own faults.

While Auto Focus provocatively explores the intersection of technology, desire, fame and addiction, perhaps finally the story of Bob Crane captures something more timeless: the horror of an unexamined life.