It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Eddie Cantor once told Bob Crane, "likability is 90 percent of the battle." It seems to be 100 percent of Bob Crane's battle; there is nothing there except likability--no values, no self-awareness, no judgment, no perspective, not even an instinct for survival. Just likability, and the need to be liked in a sexual way every single day. Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus," based on Crane's life, is a deep portrait of a shallow man, lonely and empty, going through the motions of having a good time.
The broad outlines of Crane's rise and fall are well known. How he was a Los Angeles DJ who became a TV star after being cast in the lead of "Hogan's Heroes," a comedy set in a Nazi prison camp. How his career tanked after the show left the air. How he toured on the dinner theater circuit, destroyed two marriages, and was so addicted to sex that his life was scandalous even by Hollywood standards. How he was found bludgeoned to death in 1978 in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room.
Crane is survived by four children, including sons from his first and second marriages who differ in an almost biblical way, the older appearing in this movie, the younger threatening a lawsuit against it, yet running a Web site retailing his father's sex life. So strange was Crane's view of his behavior, so disconnected from reality, that I almost imagine he would have seen nothing wrong with his second son's sales of photos and videotapes of his father having sex. "It's healthy," Crane argues in defense of his promiscuity, although we're not sure if he really thinks that, or really thinks anything.
The movie is a hypnotic portrait of this sad, compulsive life. The director, Paul Schrader, is no stranger to stories about men trapped in sexual miscalculation; he wrote "Taxi Driver" and wrote and directed "American Gigolo." He sees Crane as an empty vessel, filled first with fame and then with desire. Because he was on TV, he finds that women want to sleep with him, and seems to oblige them almost out of good manners. There is no lust or passion in this film, only mechanical courtship followed by desultory sex. You can catch the women looking at him and asking themselves if there is anybody at home. Even his wives are puzzled.