As a director and as Martin Scorsese's screenwriter of choice, Paul Schrader specializes in a specific type of protagonist: conflicted, emotionally needy, obsessive, and hungry for redemption, but not sure how to attain it. In that respect, Willem Dafoe's all-too-human Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ represented the quintessential Schrader hero, but Greg Kinnear's Bob Crane in Auto Focus isn't far behind. Crane is best known as the blandly handsome star of the wildly popular '60s sitcom Hogan's Heroes, but he's also known for dying a horrific death involving his obsession with homemade pornography. Schrader previously explored this sort of too-sordid-for-fiction terrain with 1988's Patty Hearst, where his contempt for his characters and their values obscured powerful performances from Natasha Richardson and Ving Rhames. Auto Focus boasts similarly dead-on performances from Greg Kinnear and Dafoe, and for much of its first half, the two make the film seem better than it is. Adapted from Robert Graysmith's book The Murder Of Bob Crane, Auto Focus opens with Kinnear making the leap from popular radio personality to network sitcom star. Perpetually eager to please, he loves the adulation his newfound fame brings, particularly after audio and video specialist John Carpenter (played by Dafoe) lures him into a nighttime landscape of strip clubs, easy sex, and homemade porn. As long as Kinnear is successful, the world seems willing to overlook his infidelities and private kinks, but as his star wanes, his desperation increases, and his friendship with Dafoe further devolves into a pathetic mixture of codependency, mutual exploitation, and homosexual panic. For a while, Auto Focus is as queasily compelling as Schrader's best work, but when Kinnear begins his descent, the film spirals with him, starting with an overwrought dream sequence that veers headfirst into self-parody: All that's missing is a shot of Jesus shaking his head in shame. In faux-GoodFellas fashion, Auto Focus' visual style mirrors its protagonist's deteriorating mental state, with an awkward, cable-ready first half giving way to the quick cuts, stylized lighting, and shaky handheld camera work that have become shorthand for bottoming out. Kinnear's mesmerizing performance comes close to redeeming Auto Focus, suggesting depths the film never gets around to exposing, but Schrader's alternately flat and histrionic storytelling sends the film hurtling beyond redemption.
More from The A.V. Club