Californian DJ Bob Crane becomes a '60s TV star off the back of US sitcom Hogan's Heroes and, hooking up with techno wizard John Carpenter, embarks on a downward spiral of seedy sex, wrecked marriages, dinner theatre and gruesome death.
At various points throughout Auto Focus, Bob Crane utters, "A day without sex is a day wasted." It's a cheery aphorism that masks a sad, compulsive life, and it is precisely this mixture of comedy and desperation that infects Paul Schrader's brilliant biopic.
A huge star in the '60s via the title role in POW sitcom Hogan's Heroes, Crane's subsequent sex odyssey is fashioned into fabulous filmmaking by a director near the top of his game. This film is a further demonstration of Schrader's uncanny ability to mine real-life subject matter (Yukio Mishima, Patty Hearst) for the obsessions that also infuse his creations (Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, American Gigolo's Julian Kay).
Auto Focus continues his fascination with sex as a substitute for an interior life, the pull of pornography, and characters who spectacularly participate in their own downfall. Mounting the sexcapades that passed for Crane's life, Schrader's gaze is unflinching and non-judgemental, clinically carving open Crane's addictions (fame and technology as well as sex) like an autopsy.
What stops this from becoming an unwatchable nosedive into degradation is a career-best performance from Greg Kinnear. The actor makes Crane endlessly likeable, never soliciting sympathy for his painfully unaware sleazebag. He is ably supported by Dafoe, an old hand at pathetic seediness and insidious neediness. If Crane provides the star power, Carpenter lends the man power, and their mutual dependency becomes the core of the movie - a moment where Crane berates Carpenter for a stray hand on his butt during a "group grope" is priceless.
Around the central pairing, there are excellent incidental pleasures: a jazzy title sequence straight out of a Rock Hudson-Doris Day picture, some great recreations of ersatz US sitcom, Crane's truly appalling appearance on a '70s cookery show. But it is Schrader's cool, cinematic intelligence that makes Auto Focus as sharp as it is superior.
Although the movie winds up around ten minutes too long and Schrader's occasional flights into fantasy don't quite come off, Auto Focus emerges as funny, imaginative and bizarrely touching. A compelling, complex portrait of a deeply shallow man.