Even for Paul Schrader, that avid and obsessive student of losers, the late, unlamented Bob Crane poses a challenge. As portrayed in Schrader‘s new film, Auto Focus, Crane was a man of staggering banality who was lucky enough to land a starring role in the mid-’60s TV sitcom Hogan‘s Heroes. The show, a smash hit set in a World War II POW camp, was symptomatic of the chipper superficiality of both the new medium and the period it reflected. When Hogan’s Heroes ended after a six-year run, Crane‘s career hit the skids. A couple of failed Disney movies and the need to support two families relegated him to the wasteland of dinner theater, and when word spread of his addiction to videotaped sex with hookers, fans and just about any stranger who said yes, Crane was finished. His murder — he was clubbed to death with his own camera tripod as he slept in a dingy motel in 1978 — was every bit as cheap and tawdry as his life, yet it brought him a second, posthumous burst of fame. In our celebrity-sodden culture, that’s barely an irony, but it‘s enough of one for Schrader (and his producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who make a handsome living off movies about notorious sleazoids) to savor.

Auto Focus opens with a breezy, high-color montage of the icons that defined the casual hedonism of the early ’60s (Marilyn Monroe, martinis, Sammy Davis Jr.), then proceeds rather faithfully through Crane‘s rise and fall as if it were a conventional biopic — except for one strategic distortion. In life Crane appears to have done a pretty efficient job of destroying himself. Schrader gives him an enabler — John Carpenter, a television and sound technician who in actuality was not central to Crane’s life, even though he switched Crane on to the possibilities of video for home movies of all kinds, and wound up a suspect in Crane‘s unsolved murder. (He was later acquitted for lack of evidence, and died in 1998.) Schrader assumes Carpenter’s guilt, and frames the movie as a tale of unrequited love — emotionally intense, covertly homoerotic on at least one side, and likewise fatally unbalanced in its power nexus between two men who pressed each other into a subterranean lifestyle neither might have ventured alone.

We meet Crane, who‘s played by Greg Kinnear, on the cusp of his big break. A good Catholic and devoted family man (his first wife, Anne, is nicely played by Rita Wilson as an intelligent, dignified suburbanite) who doesn’t drink or smoke, Crane takes guileless pleasure in the instant recognition his newfound success brings him (he offers fans autographs even before they ask for them) and is genuinely puzzled when an interviewer suggests there may be something unseemly in a comedy set in Nazi Germany. Already we see something callow and heedless in Crane — he claims (in an interview with a Christian journalist, played by Crane‘s No. 1 son, who was also a consultant on the movie) to be a ”one-woman man“ who ”doesn’t make waves,“ yet he craves recognition, and is driven to follow his desires no matter what the cost to himself and those he loves.

Though typically cast in benign romantic comedies, Kinnear got his dry run for the schizoid Crane in Nurse Betty, as a famous soap-opera character and the feckless actor who plays him. He‘s marvelously ambiguous and deliciously blank here, lending a slightly sinister cast to every harmless, handsome man he’s ever played. Decked out like a Florida golfer, with his hair dyed black, his eyes at once bright and empty, Kinnear‘s Crane is a distillation of the fatuousness of American celebrity (especially television celebrity), which attaches itself to vacancy, to amiable dopes with regular features who promise to be unfailingly gracious, to have no opinions and give us no trouble. Schrader suggests that had Crane not met Carpenter (effortlessly and hilariously played by Willem Dafoe, that specialist in crud), his secret sex life might have begun and ended with the stash of girlie magazines his wife discovers in the garage. Under the tutelage of Carpenter, who’s not just a sleazeball but also a prophet of the uses to which videotape would be put in the decades to follow, Crane takes to working off his stress by drumming in strip clubs, then segues to sex orgies taped by Carpenter in his own seedy apartment. Even here Crane proves a bland fellow. The sex is tired, repetitive, the kind you‘d find on the shadier channels of any hotel-room television, and for Crane it’s only really a turn-on if it‘s being recorded — and, gradually, copied and spread around. Alone, Crane is an innocent with the proclivities of a pervert. With Carpenter, he becomes an avatar of the twisted, pathologically compartmentalized, homophobic and deeply conservative male sexuality that emerged in a culture at once prurient and prudish. (Crane is horrified to see Carpenter’s hand on his ass as he reviews a tape, and when he and Carpenter find themselves at a hippie orgy, they‘re as appalled by the open, easy sexual mores and anti-war sloganeering as they are titillated by the abundance of naked breasts.) Only Carpenter, the procurer, grasps that without Crane’s fame there‘d be no dates: The actor’s endless supply of women, including his second wife, Patti (Maria Bello), sign on to have sex with Colonel Hogan, not with Bob Crane, and when Crane refuses to keep his compartments separate, the deal is off. In one very funny scene that also aches with pathos, Crane, now unemployed, gets lucky with a young woman by having the bartender change the TV channel to a rerun of Hogan‘s Heroes, then flashing her his profile.

For a while, anyway, Schrader means for us to be as amused by all this as he is. For much of the movie the tone is frankly and cheerily exploitative — where Crane is addicted to sex, Schrader is addicted to addicts — and very funny. (Michael Gerbosi has crafted a wickedly amusing script from the book about Crane’s murder by Robert Graysmith.) Schrader won‘t allow us the liberal luxury of feeling sorry for this man. As Crane systematically takes a wrecking ball to his career and his personal life, he grows less and less self-aware (he proudly shows around an album of his conquests) and ever more ruthless in his attempts to dump the increasingly desperate Carpenter. Crane’s voice-over remains perky to the end, but as the color slowly drains from the film‘s insanely upbeat pastel palette, we see him for what he is — a sad and frightened man whose cluelessness seems to increase with age, a man still so devoid of inner life that he has no idea, nor does he care to ask, how he came to this sorry pass. ”I’m normal,“ he bleats to the loyal agent (Ron Leibman) who warns him to be more careful. The scary part is that he may be right, that he‘s not just a poor schnook with dreary habits between the sheets, but a hollow man in a hollow culture.

The ironies pile up. Schrader has given Crane back his stardom (from which, by most accounts, his immediate surviving relatives are leeching their own notoriety and profits), and in doing so has likely regained his own: In the wake of Auto Focus, he’s had his first studio offer to direct in years. Certainly the movie is one of his most accomplished, and most entertaining, but there‘s something cold and unforgiving about his vision, delivered with a severity that only a bred-in-the-bone Calvinist could muster. If I had to choose from the gallery of Schrader’s losers, it would not be Crane, but Nick Nolte‘s wounded, self-destructive son in the heart-stoppingly humane Affliction, Schrader’s finest movie to date.

AUTO FOCUS | Directed by PAUL SCHRADER | Written by MICHAEL GERBOSI, based on the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith | Produced by SCOTT ALEXANDER and LARRY KARASZEWSKI | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theaters

LA Weekly