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Paul Schrader turns the lens on Bob Crane ... and?


There's an invigorating, inspiring film about a famous dead person opening in a couple of weeks: Julie Taymor's Frida, which is loving (but never unconditionally so) and every bit as rousing as its subject matter, painter Frida Kahlo. Taymor is a visionary making movies through kaleidoscope eyes, whereas director Paul Schrader, the auteur of this week's biopic, Auto Focus, is an ordinary mortal peering only through the camera's tiny lens. Taymor sees a thousand miles outside the box; Schrader has become the box, a master of convention. Auto Focus, the story of Bob Crane's obsession with porn -- making it, watching it, starring in it -- is as mild as the Bob Crane most of America knew (and forgot about). Schrader got that much right: Crane, a lecher sporting a cardigan grin, was a bore. So is much of the movie Schrader has made about him.

When you're making a movie about a sitcom star with a hard-on for hard-ons, there's plenty of room left to dick around with the cold, hard corpse. But Schrader isn't up for having a good time. He's a sideline adjudicator, passing judgment on a guy who isn't worth judging. Had Crane not been murdered in a Scottsdale, Arizona, motel in 1978, he'd be a footnote to a paragraph in the TV history books. At best, we're given the highlights of a man Schrader believes was a lowlife.

We see Crane (played by Greg Kinnear, hardly a look-alike but equally two-dimensional) working as a respected Los Angeles disc jockey and married to his high-school sweetheart, Anne (Rita Wilson). We see him on the set of Hogan's Heroes, where he meets and falls for costar Patti Olsen (Maria Bello). We see him with John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, sleazy again), the video-equipment salesman who introduced Crane to the latest home-movie technology and was accused of introducing him to the wrong end of a tripod. We see Crane and Carpenter cruising strip clubs, picking up "chickies," filming their exploits and -- in a rare instance when the film's dark humor cajoles a prolonged laugh -- jerking off in tandem to their handiwork. We see Crane on the dinner-theater circuit, where has-beens go to vanish. And, at movie's end, we see him murdered in his motel.

Auto Focus isn't the disturbing work of a heretic and seer, as more than one reviewer has insisted. Nothing about Auto Focus merits its flickering on the big screen; it's too timid, too ashamed of its subject matter. Only once does Schrader allow himself to freak out -- when Crane, in a dream, finds himself on the Hogan's set, watching the cast have at Patti Olsen -- but it's such a poorly staged sequence it feels like self-parody. Schrader goes instead for cheap laughs, putting the 1968 hit "Girl Watcher" on the soundtrack while Bob snaps his pervy pics. It's the sign of a lazy filmmaker who can't think of anything better.

Schrader has little interest in Crane anyway; he sees him primarily as a symbol of corrupted celebrity, as someone who used his fame to get women to take off their clothes. In interviews, the filmmaker keeps insisting he's not judging Crane -- while calling him a "creep" -- but Auto Focus says just the opposite: This film about sex is so joyless, so astonishingly unsexy, that it's like watching porn with your grandfather. Watching the homemade porn that Crane's son Scotty sells on is a far more revelatory and disquieting experience than this self-righteous bore. Ironic, isn't it, when a movie about a sex fiend doesn't have any balls?

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