Zooming in on a sitcom star

Bob Crane, the antihero of Paul Schrader's unnerving "Auto Focus," is hardly a household name today. But in the late '60s, he was known to millions as the star of "Hogan's Heroes," a hugely popular sitcom about the world's least likely sitcom subject – the exploits of Allied soldiers in a German prison camp during World War II.

Crane seemed born to play the affable Hogan, projecting clean-cut sincerity with every flash of his charming smile. Behind the scenes he was a tad more complicated, though, fretting about his career and thumbing girlie magazines when his wife and kids weren't looking.

"Auto Focus" starts when Crane moves from moderately successful Los Angeles radio host to national TV celebrity, and it takes a decisive turn when he meets a technology wonk named John Carpenter on the CBS lot. Carpenter spends his days tinkering with video equipment – then a new, wide-open field – and his nights cruising bars for excitement and sex.

Crane joins his new friend in his unseemly haunts, and before long they're using his video cameras to record living-room orgies. Rumors start flying, and Crane finds that his family-friendly image has been fatally damaged. "Hogan's Heroes" is canceled, a deal with Disney quickly sours, his first and second marriages fall apart, and he's reduced to monotonous performances on the dinner theater circuit. Things keep spiraling down until his violent death in an Arizona hotel room, where he's murdered by an unknown assailant.

"Auto Focus" is the perfect title for this story, evoking the narcissism of both Crane's self-absorbed personality and the superficial showbiz world around him. This is also a perfect subject for Schrader, who seeks less to analyze Crane's dark side than to poke and probe it like a specimen on a laboratory slide.

Although the subjects he takes on are often harsh, Schrader is a basically conservative filmmaker who's been exploring the temptations and wages of sin throughout his career, from his screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" to his own productions of "American Gigolo" and "Affliction," among others.

Instead of trying to understand or psychoanalyze Crane and Carpenter, Schrader leaves their motives deliberately undefined, allowing them to become almost abstract examples of where the snares of sensuality can lead.

This even affects Schrader's camerawork. Much of the movie is like an affectionate parody of '60s filmmaking styles, told through the elegantly framed images he usually favors. But it grows fidgety and unstable, mirroring Crane's deteriorating state of mind and Schrader's wish to convey the grim messages of his life as vigorously as possible.

Greg Kinnear plays Crane in one of the year's most pitch-perfect performances, never allowing the TV star's audience-pleasing mask to slip or crack even when his own behavior is causing his life to crumble around him. Willem Dafoe is equally right as Carpenter, at once an inscrutable cipher and a real human being with a creepy-friendly charisma that's scarily believable. The supporting cast, including Rita Wilson as Crane's first wife and Ron Liebman as his agent, is excellent.

As disturbing as it is, "Auto Focus" can hardly be called sensationalistic in the current entertainment climate, when a well-publicized scandal may boost a celebrity's career instead of harming it. Schrader is aware of this irony, and "Auto Focus" offers an implicit commentary on the moral hypocrisy underlying much of today's public amusement. On one level, it's an unsettling biopic and an acerbic look at a bygone media age. On another, it's a cautionary tale with uncommon relevance and bite.

• Rated R; contains sex and violence.

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