As of today, Crane's murder remains unsolved. Although Carpenter was tried and acquitted of the crime, he remains the subject of suspicion even after his death in 1998.
Disc-jockey-turned-actor Bob Crane develops a secret personal life, focusing on his relationship with John Henry Carpenter, an electronics expert involved with the nascent home video market. Encouraged by Carpenter and enabled by his expertise, Crane—a church-going, clean-cut family man—becomes a sex addict obsessed with women and with recording his encounters using video and photographic equipment, usually with Carpenter participating.
With the passing of the years, the relationship between Crane and Carpenter unravels in a dangerous way. Crane is divorced by two wives, first Anne and then Patty, a former co-star from his hit television series Hogan's Heroes. With the show no longer on the air and Crane stereotyped by his TV role, his agent Lenny has difficulty finding him work. And by the time Walt Disney Productions hires him for the leading role in a family movie, Crane's reputation for being obsessed by sex and pornography is endangering his image.
Confined to doing dinner theater in mid-sized cities, Crane's attempts to distance himself from Carpenter fail as their sexual escapades continue. Carpenter soon becomes "my only friend," but after a final falling-out between them in Scottsdale, Arizona, someone bludgeons Crane to death inside a motel room. Carpenter is tried for the crime, but not until many years later, when he is acquitted. Crane's murder remains unsolved.Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane
Willem Dafoe as John Henry Carpenter
Rita Wilson as Anne Crane
Maria Bello as Patricia Olson/Patricia Crane/Sigrid Valdis
Ron Leibman as Lenny
Michael E. Rodgers as Richard Dawson
Kurt Fuller as Werner Klemperer
Grand L. Bush as Ivan Dixon
Christopher Neiman as Robert Clary
Ed Begley, Jr. as Mel Rosen
Michael McKean as Video Executive
Roderick L. McCarthy as Bartender
John Kapelos as Bruno Gerussi
Lyle Kanouse as John Banner
The film met with a largely positive reception from critics. A.O. Scott of the New York Times said the film "gets to you like a low-grade fever, a malaise with no known antidote. When it was over, I wasn't sure if I needed a drink, a shower or a lifelong vow of chastity ... there is [a] severe, powerful moralism lurking beneath the film's dispassionate matter-of-factness. Mr. Schrader is indifferent to the sinner, but he cannot contain his loathing of the sin, which is not so much sex as the fascination with images ... To argue that images can corrupt the flesh and hollow out the soul is, for a filmmaker, an obviously contradictory exercise, but not necessarily a hypocritical one. There is plenty of nudity in Auto Focus, but you can always glimpse the abyss behind the undulating bodies, and the director leads you from easy titillation to suffocating dread, pausing only briefly and cautiously to consider the possibility of pleasure."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars calling it "a hypnotic portrait ... pitch-perfect in its decor, music, clothes, cars, language and values ... Greg Kinnear gives a creepy, brilliant performance as a man lacking in all insight ... Crane was not a complex man, but that should not blind us to the subtlety and complexity of Kinnear's performance."
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called it "a compelling, sympathetic portrait ... Kinnear undercuts the seaminess of the Crane story, and shows us a man with more dimension and complexity than his behavior might suggest."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone awarded it 3½ out of 4 stars and added, "Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver and the director of American Gigolo, is a poet of male sexual pathology. Shot through with profane laughs and stinging drama, Auto Focus ranks with his best films."
Todd McCarthy of Variety called it "one of director Paul Schrader's best films, and like Boogie Nights ranks as a shrewd exposé of recent Hollywood's slimy underside ... Schrader directs with a very smooth hand, providing a good-natured and frequently amusing spin to eventually grim material that aptly reflects the protagonist's almost unfailing good humor ... Pic overall has an excellent L.A. period feel without getting elaborate about it, and musical contributions by Angelo Badalamenti and a host of pop tunes are tops."
The film has an 72% approval rating on review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 158 reviews.
Bob Crane's son, Scotty, bitterly attacked the film as being inaccurate. In an October 2002 piece he wrote on the movie, Scotty said that his father was not a regular church-goer and had only been to church three times in the last dozen years of his life, including his own funeral. There is no evidence that Crane engaged in S&M, and director Paul Schrader told Scotty that the S&M scene was based on Schrader's own personal experience. Scotty claims that his father and John Carpenter did not become close friends who socialized together until 1975, and that Crane was a sex addict long before he became a star, recording his sexual encounters at least as early as 1956.
Scotty and his mother had shopped a rival script for a Bob Crane movie biography. The spec script, alternately titled "F-Stop" and "Take Off Your Clothes and Smile", was written up in Variety by venerable columnist Army Archerd, but after Auto-Focus was announced, interest in Scotty's script ceased.
Paul Schrader was nominated for the Golden Seashell at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Chicago Film Critics Association but lost to Tim Robbins for Mystic River.