There's an invigorating, inspiring film about a famous dead person opening in a few days: 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 writer-director Paul Schrader, the maker 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, and so is much of the movie Schrader has made about him.
The movie's Klinky, yeah (Kurt Fuller offers up a hilariously dead-on Werner Klemperer, commandant of Stalag 13), but hardly kinky. When you're making a movie about a sitcom star with a hard-on for hard-ons -- when you're making a movie about a Superdad who showed his kids his collection of beaver pelts -- 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; if Crane were alive, if he hadn't been murdered in a Scottsdale motel in 1978, he'd be a footnote to a paragraph in the history books. Schrader hardly tells us why he's worthy of his own movie.
At best, his is a skimming of well-documented history; 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 as two-dimensional) working as a well-respected Los Angeles disc jockey; we see him at home with his kids and Anne, his first wife and high school sweetheart (Rita Wilson). We see him on the set of Hogan's Heroes; we see him meet and fall for Patti Olsen (Maria Bello), who played Klink's secretary. We see him with John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, playing the creep yet again), the video-equipment salesman (not to be confused with the horror-movie director) who introduced Crane to the latest in home-movie technology and, likely, introduced him to the wrong end of a murder weapon. We see him and Carpenter cruising strip clubs, picking up "chickies," filming their exploits, and -- in a rare instance where the film goes for dark humor and ends up cajoling 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. It all feels so much like a newsmagazine's reenactment -- a rehashing without passion or purpose.
That Auto Focus is being feted as the disturbing work of a heretic and seer, as more than one reviewer has insisted during its run on the festival circuit, only reveals the limits of filmmakers' -- and filmgoers' -- imaginations. Nothing about Auto Focus merits its flickering on the big screen; it's too timid, as though it's 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 -- and the sequence is so poorly staged that it feels like self-parody. Schrader goes instead for cheap and easy 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.
Auto Focus belongs on the same television sets that will flip past reruns of Hogan's Heroes on TV Land. CBS's Gleason, which aired a few weeks ago and painted Jackie Gleason in stunningly unflattering shades of black and white, at least dared to reveal, if not revel in, the unfathomable -- that a man so beloved was equally despicable. Auto Focus shows us little beyond the yellowed headlines or the awfully written book upon which the movie's based: Crane had a bad habit, and it got him killed. What, did you miss The E! True Hollywood Story? Or the A&E Biography? Or the dozen other teledocs done on the one-hit wonder, who wound up with his head bashed in 24 years ago?
Schrader has little interest in Crane anyway; he sees him as nothing more than a symbol of corrupted celebrity, as someone who used his fame to get women to take off their clothes and flash the vertical smile. In interviews, the filmmaker keeps insisting he's not judging Crane -- while calling him a "creep," actually -- but his movie says just the opposite: This film about sex is so joyless, so astonishingly unsexy, it's like watching porn with your grandfather going tsk-tsk-tsk over your shoulder for two hours. Schrader even deletes the good stuff, obscuring the homemade black-and-white porn -- which Crane's son Scotty sells on www.bobcrane.com, itself 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?