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Following two upmarket deviations—Career Girls, an uninspired chick flick, and Topsy-Turvy, an elaborate, delightful evocation of the Gilbert and Sullivan era—English writer-director Mike Leigh returns to the proletarian milieu, the setting of his most memorable efforts, with All or Nothing. Although the film offers many of the satisfactions of Leigh’s High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, and Secrets and Lies, it’s less effective—a depressing slice of life capped by a forced, unconvincing affirmation.

Shot in a grim, graffiti-covered public-housing complex, All or Nothing chronicles the hardscrabble lives of three troubled families. Phil (Timothy Spall), a lumbering, moon-faced cab driver, lives in quiet desperation with his exasperated common-law wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), a supermarket cashier, and their two bloated children: Rachel (Alison Garland), a nursing-home aide, and Rory (James Corden), a truculent layabout. This dysfunctional family’s tale is interwoven with those of two sets of neighbors. Ron (Paul Jesson), Phil’s accident-prone colleague, shares a flat with his alcoholic wife, Carol (Marion Bailey), and their indolent, hot-to-trot adolescent daughter, Samantha (Sally Hawkins). And Penny’s chipper co-worker Maureen (Ruth Sheen) struggles to communicate with her own rebellious daughter, Donna (Helen Coker), a pregnant, unmarried cafe waitress.

All or Nothing—only slightly hoisted from kitchen-sink grime by Dick Pope’s artful camerawork and Andrew Dickson’s chamber-music score—paints relentlessly somber portraits. Following Leigh’s customary procedure of involving his cast in the development of their characters, the actors totally committed themselves to their roles—with mixed results. Employing a minimum of obvious devices, slim, drawn Manville conveys Penny’s dissatisfaction with her life, and plump, pale Garland is mutely heartbreaking as her daughter, a generous-spirited gal who refuses to afflict others with her obvious unhappiness. Sheen, who also sparkled in High Hopes, is a standout as plucky Maureen, who takes life’s vicissitudes in stride. (Her karaoke version of “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” brings a welcome ray of sunshine to Leigh’s overcast movie.) But Bailey’s booze-sodden Carol is ludicrously over-the-top, and, conversely, Spall’s Phil is comatosely under-the-bottom. His bloated, whiskery face, with its pained, unblinking eyes and gaping mouth, expresses only one emotion: stupefied misery.

Lacking the humor that leavened Leigh’s previous working-class movies, All or Nothing zeroes in on the filmmaker’s recurrent theme: how economics and family stresses conspire to strangle the hopes and dreams of individuals. For nearly two hours, he’s successful in depicting people fighting a losing battle against their environment. But then he loses courage, tossing a bone of unpersuasive uplift to his viewers: A near-tragedy forces Phil and Penny to acknowledge that their relationship has eroded to loveless codependency. At this point, Leigh’s screenplay, hitherto brimming with lively, profane language, dries up. In an interminable redemptive sequence reminiscent of John Cassavetes at his most self-indulgent, the couple stare at each other in tearful close shots, struggling to resurrect their feelings for each other.

Presumably, Leigh resorts to silence to suggest that his characters are experiencing emotions too intense to articulate, but the result is more numbing than affecting. In a coda, the pair, having survived this conjugal epiphany, are physically transformed—Phil for once shaved and smiling, Penny sporting makeup and breezily communicative. But audiences responsive to Leigh’s melancholy vision are unlikely to embrace such a cheesy regeneration. His stark presentation of the confines of English working-class life cannot accommodate this glib happy ending.

There’s no need to worry about gratuitous affirmation in a Paul Schrader film. Auto Focus, an account of the rise and fall of sitcom actor Bob Crane, is a subject made in hell for the Dutch Calvinist-raised doomster. Produced by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—screenwriters of the recent biopics about Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, and Andy Kaufman—Auto Focus plays like a bigger-budget version of E!’s True Hollywood Stories: tabloid journalism with a bluenose agenda.

By the early ’60s, handsome young Crane (Greg Kinnear), a teetotaling Catholic with a wife and three young children, had established himself as a successful Los Angeles radio personality. When he was offered the title role in the World War II prison-camp sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, he and his wife, Anne (Rita Wilson), initially nixed the job, regarding it as a tasteless career-killer. (Neither they nor first-time screenwriter Michael Gerbosi seemed aware that the series was a knockoff of Billy Wilder’s 1953 Stalag 17, for which William Holden won the Best Actor Oscar playing the Hogan prototype.) The show premiered in September 1965; an immediate hit, it enjoyed a six-season run.

Starting with its satiric opening credits, a montage of loungey ’60s pop iconography, Auto Focus is jaunty in its depiction of Crane’s swift rise to national celebrity. Schrader pokes fun at the cheapjack production methods of ’60s television programs, as well as Crane’s astonishment at the ease of his ascent. But humor and happiness in Schrader movies are merely ironic—the harbingers of disaster.

Sexual problems in Crane’s marriage, underscored by his wife’s discovery of a cache of girlie magazines in the garage, come to a head when he encounters sinister electronics expert John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). During a visit to Crane’s home to upgrade a stereo system, Carpenter introduces him to then-emergent videotape technology and escorts him to Salome’s, a strip club. Crane soon becomes a habitue of the place, playing drums with the house band while ogling the performers.

Consultation with his family priest fails to curb Crane’s growing sex addiction. He and the Mephistophelian Carpenter begin engaging in, and videotaping, orgies. (Inexplicably, several shots of these tapes are pixilated to obscure naughty bits, in an apparent attempt to avoid an NC-17 rating.) Crane’s marriage collapses, and he takes up with Patti Olson (Maria Bello), a free-spirited Hogan’s Heroes cast member, who accepts the actor’s dalliances. This leads to a second marriage—which eventually also fails.

After Crane’s series is canceled, his career nose-dives. Desperate to find employment, he’s reduced to performing in regional dinner theaters. Now out of control, he attempts to clean up his act and sever his ties with the sinister Carpenter. But his evil other refuses to be banished, and in 1978, by the film’s account, murders him in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room. (Subsequently, as the closing titles explain, Carpenter was acquitted of the killing in a 1992 trial. He died six years later.)

Schrader’s formal presentation of this cautionary tale is hardly subtle. Crane’s glory days are photographed in sunny, vibrant colors and accompanied by bubbly music. But as he descends, the images grow shadowy, shaky, and monochromatic, and the score degenerates into droning distortions. The actors make what they can of their skimpily written roles—real-life characters stripped of psychological dimensions and reconfigured as exemplars in a morality play. With his depraved-choirboy face, Kinnear is ideally cast as Crane, as is gaptoothed Dafoe as the ghoulish Carpenter, a role that, by now, he could play while sleepwalking. Wilson, fetching in her Jane Fonda wardrobe, and Bello, who was the earthy bright spot in the otherwise dismal Permanent Midnight and Duets, maximize their limited screen time by hinting at emotional depths that the script largely chooses

to ignore.

Like Star 80 and other bleak Hollywood biographies, Auto Focus leaves one questioning its purpose. Is Schrader encouraging viewers to regard the corruption and ultimate brutal demise of its protagonist

as just comeuppance for his easily won success? If so, the movie amounts to little more an exercise in voyeurism, casting the audience in the same indefensible position as Crane and Carpenter as they masturbate while watching videos of their sexcapades.

Or is the film just another manifestation of Schrader’s puritanism, a vehicle for him to express his fear of sexuality and, in particular, his homoerotic anxieties? In an early tag-team romp, Carpenter casually slips a finger up his pal’s butt—an attention that is not appreciated—and just before the hi-tech whiz murders his friend, the filmmaker intercuts a closeup of Carpenter rubbing his crotch. The homophobic subtexts of previous Schrader movies, including American Gigolo, Hardcore, and The Comfort of Strangers, are worth recollecting here. Schrader suggests that sexual rejection motivated Carpenter to bump off the object of his thwarted desire.

In interviews, Schrader has stated that he was drawn to Crane’s story because “it chronicles the evolving notion of American male sexual identity in the critical years from ’65 to ’78″—but Auto Focus barely touches on that theme. This rationale sounds more like a high-minded ex post facto smokescreen—but it does little to disguise the film’s malevolence and sexual antipathy. CP