Adapted with frustrating conventionality from the Robert Graysmith book "TheMurder of Bob Crane" by first-time writer Michael Gerbosi, "Auto Focus" begins with Crane's (Greg Kinnear) unlikely ascent to stardom as star of the hit television series "Hogan's Heroes" after many years as a popular '60s-era Los Angeles radio personality. Though outwardly a churchgoing family-man, Crane is revealed to be something of a benign sex addict, a secret collector of pornography who somehow resists the temptation to act on his impulses. Then he meets video wizard John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a supplier of high-tech toys to Hollywood's rich and famous. Carpenter invites Crane to join him and Crane's "Hogan's Heroes" costar Richard Dawson at a local strip-tease club, an evening that proves to be the proverbial crack in the dike. By night's end Crane is playing drums with the band backing up the strippers and feeling pretty good about his nascent sexual liberation.
From there, things rapidly deteriorate. Carpenter and Crane become fast friends, increasingly consumed by the lure of the swinging lifestyle. Crane's celebrity makes it easy to pick up the kind of women who are only too willing to be photographed and videotaped in a variety of sex acts with Crane and Carpenter. In the years that follow, the obsession destroys two successive marriages and all but obliterates Crane's career before finally throwing a spike into the relationship with the guardedly insecure Carpenter who, the film suggests, vented his rage by bludgeoning Crane to death in a Scottsdale, Arizona motel room in 1978.
Though tried for the crime many years after the fact, Carpenter was never convicted, dying shortly thereafter and forever taking the duo's secrets with him. Only videotapes and photos survive to suggest the extent of their exceptionally depraved lifestyle. That being said, "Auto Focus" does a praiseworthy job of piecing together a respectable, if somewhat speculative, sequence of events with which the incredulous is made to appear genuinely credible. Unfortunately, respectability is precisely what this story doesn't need. As a director, Paul Schrader has often wallowed in even darker material than that which he has written for other directors. "Hardcore," "Light Sleeper" and the bleak "The Comfort of Strangers" all point to Schrader being precisely the right man for the job. And yet, for the better part of the film's first two thirds, he seems to be simply biding his time, waiting for just the right moment to unleash. But when that moment finally comes, "Auto Focus" is nearly over, capping its 90-minute tease with a 10-minute payoff that almost certainly won't be enough to sate viewers familiar with the actual events. Those who are Schrader fans are certain to be even less enthused.
Fortunately, the picture has Kinnear and Dafoe to salvage it. Together, they do a spectacular job of capturing the difficult psychological duality of figures who, to most people, would otherwise seem entirely incomprehensible. Kinnear avoids doing an outright impersonation of Crane, opting instead for a nuanced performance that captures the essence of Crane's Faustian struggle. Though it's never fully clear why anyone would sacrifice their inhibitions to their demons with so much at stake, Kinnear communicates a certain spiritual vapidity that provides a solid starting point for guesswork. Dafoe's achievement is less obvious but no less essential to the picture's emotional mechanics, his portrayal of a parasitic sex addict managing to elicit a certain measure of audience empathy at key points along the way.
While there is undeniably a better movie to be made about Crane and Carpenter than what has been wrought here, it's fair to say that most viewers will probably consider "Auto Focus" to be more than sufficient for the story it tells--a vicarious walk on the wild side that, if it were any wilder, might easily have alienated audiences altogether. Starring Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Bruce Solomon and Kurt Fuller. Directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Michael Gerbosi. Produced by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Todd Rosken, Patt Dollard and Alicia Allain. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use and violence. Running time: 105 min