So long, sleazy star

Bad things happen to naughty boys in 'Auto Focus'

Bob Crane, star of TV's 'Hogan's Heroes' and 1978 murder victim, was a sex addict. Which would have been a terribly shocking topic for a film, say, 30 years ago. But the more jaded modern audience sitting down for director Paul Schrader's two-hour morality play, 'Auto Focus,' will more than likely respond with a puzzled shrug as they wonder just why, exactly, Crane's creepy obsession was such a big deal.

'Auto Focus' Ñ or, if you prefer, 'Paul Schrader presents an E! Hollywood Story' Ñ traces Crane's life from the late '60s until his death by bludgeoning in a low-rent Arizona apartment. During that time, the actor catalogued a staggering amount of videotape and photographs of his sexual encounters with countless women.

As played by Greg Kinnear, Crane starts out a smirky innocent, attending church with his wife (Rita Wilson) and their two children. He practices on his drum kit, prints photos in his garage darkroom and devotes just a little too much attention to his career to be a perfect husband.

Sure, he has a stash of nudie magazines hidden away Ñ and, boy, is he in for it when the missus finds them! Ñ but he's just a regular, red-blooded suburban male. Until he meets the instrument of his downfall, swinger and Sony sales rep John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who introduces Crane to that brand-new invention, home video.

The parasitic Carpenter takes Crane to strip joints, orgies and swingers' clubs, using the TV star's celebrity to pick up women Ñ many women. Crane's obsession with sex eventually destroys two marriages and his reputation, and he ends up traveling around the country with his pal 'Carpy,' doing lousy dinner theater and videotaping their nightly conquests.

While Schrader begins his film with cheery colors, bright lights and a jaunty, absurdist tone, the movie becomes gradually darker as it chronicles Crane's descent. By the end of the film, the dialogue is stilted, the camera is shaky, and the film is grainy. You may remember this technique from all those 'Drugs are scary' movies they made you sit through in high school Ñ only in this case, the lesson is 'Sex is scary.' The sermonizing is just as condescending in either case.

Kinnear nails Crane's mannerisms and swagger, but he's crippled by a script that never lets us inside the man's head. Schrader seems more concerned with having us watch Crane from the outside as an object lesson. And it's a curiously detached performance, as if Kinnear himself didn't want to be too closely associated with the character.

As Carpenter, Dafoe is more creepy because of his bad dye job and Beatle haircut than by his demeanor. Having acted in films for 20 years, Dafoe should be wary of becoming typecast as a slimeball.

'Auto Focus' is disquieting but overly preachy. If it weren't for the naked breasts and simulated copulation, it most likely would be seen on cable as a standard 'addiction of the week' flick.