Auto Focus 

(R) 3 stars

(R) 3 stars

Not long ago I happened to watch some old 1950s Bettie Page films. Flickering, monochrome and static, they were tame by any modern standard, but somehow knowing that they were, at one time, furtively traded and viewed on a hush-hush basis, made them seem all the more transgressive. The same is true of Auto Focus, which examines the wacky onscreen and oversexed offscreen life of Hogan"s Heroes star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear, in a flawless performance.) The details of his life unfold in a polyester, tacky, antiseptic-to-the-point-of-being-oppressive environment in the 1960s and 1970s, which makes his relatively tame but extensive sex life (he likes sex and lots of it) seem all the more furtive and uneasy. The main plot follows Crane and his relationship with video tech wiz John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who sets himself and Crane up with swinging sex partners all over the country, using Crane"s fame as the hook. Crane"s professional and personal lives get increasingly complicated as a result; much tension ensues. The rest of the cast delivers strong performances, particularly the supporting players in Hogan"s Heroes. Kurt Fuller (Karl Rove in That"s My Bush) is particularly sharp as Werner Klemperer. Dafoe once again demonstrates that nobody"s better at being simultaneously creepy and charming, as Carpenter bumbles, smooth-talks, and stalks his way into various complicated situations, getting a little more out of control each time. Director Paul Schrader, who has written some of Martin Scorcese"s best films (Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, among others), directs with a steady hand for the bulk of the story, but derails near the end. He starts the movie with long, unbroken shots and few editing tricks, rather like a 1960s sitcom, and, as Crane"s life spins out of control, intentionally allows the visual storytelling to become more unsteady. Though the tonal shifts work for the first ninety minutes, there is such a thing as too much oppression, and the final half hour could have done with about fifteen fewer minutes of hard closeups, shaky-cam shots and nonstop Gloomy Music from composer Angelo Badalamenti. As a story, Auto Focus is a bit uneven, an episodic run from one event to another. Even so, it"s a marvelously entertaining and often thought-provoking examination of the uncertain morality and ambiguous social rituals of the 1960s. The film is an evocative recreation of an era, especially the television sequences, and a compelling character study of two men who aren"t quite aware of how far in over their heads they really are.

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