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Crane Wreck: Greg Kinnear plays TV star and jaded sex-taper Bob Crane in titillating yet cautionary 'Auto Focus.'

Cracked Actor

Bob Crane menaces the world with his mojo in Paul Schrader's 'Auto Focus'

By Richard von Busack

DIRECTOR PAUL SCHRADER'S career demonstrates that a man who persists in the same filmmaking style for years will eventually become funny despite a serious lack of humor. Auto Focus is a biopic of Bob Crane, known forever as the mischievous lead on TV's Hogan's Heroes. The film, which is meant as a study of compulsion, presents Crane simply as a man out of control, instead of as a more extreme type--and hardly the most extreme type--of a '60s/'70s sensualist.

What would Crane have accomplished if he'd lived? An Old Navy ad? I realize that his relatives miss him badly. We saw them on ABC's 20/20, a show that proposed to play hardball with Crane's widow, but Pat Crane confessed that she loved her late husband and that their open marriage was a mutual decision. That claim threw the reporter into such consternation, you'd think the lady had just arrived from Alpha Centauri. All that was missing was reportorial Freudianism: "Now, 'Crane' means 'skull' in French. Was Bob's compulsive womanizing a way of holding back his fear of death?"

Aside from its chastising point of view, Auto Focus offers an invigorating roll in the mud, with a perfectly cast Greg Kinnear as Crane. Crane was a nice-guy actor usually found in Jack Lemmon parts, a nondrinker and nonsmoker--"Two outta three ain't bad!," he'd joke. He reached fame in his funny POW show, woven from elements in Stalag 17 and To Be or Not to Be. The show was a hit, no doubt because of the expert clowning of John "Schultz" Banner and Werner "Col. Klink" Klemperer.

On the studio lot, Crane meets a Hollywood hanger-on known as John "Carpy" Carpenter, a salesman of the earliest systems of home video. Carpy is played by "Creepy," Willem Dafoe, who exudes such a Pepe Le Pew aroma you're amazed the very ferns in the fern bars don't wither when he walks past. Hogan's Heroes ends, and Crane lives on residuals and dinner theater. The two men devote themselves to recording their couplings. The odd friendship is stormy and, eventually, leads to homicide. Rita Wilson can't do much with the part of the first Mrs. Crane, a betrayed homemaker. However, Maria Bello has her best role yet as Crane's second wife, Pat. Bello's strength showed through the rotten chintz of Coyote Ugly. Here, she makes sure that there's a real woman in the movie.

Like science fiction and spy movies, sleaze biopics are great when they're good--and even better when they're ripe. Schrader can't mine much irony form the contrast between Crane's onscreen and offscreen persona (since Hogan was such an amoral rogue), so he goes into silly fantasy passages of Schultz and Klink grilling the real-life Crane about his sex life. Some will see this as a grim film about a sexaholic on a bender--certainly Dafoe does--but like Mommy Dearest, Auto Focus is amusing despite its intentions. Remember, we were supposed to weep during the "No wire hangers!" scene.

Auto Focus (R; 107 min.), directed by Paul Schrader, written by Robert Graysmith and Michael Gerbosi, photographed by Fred Murphy and starring Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe and Maria Bello, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell and selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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