Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 12, 2002
Flash Point

Robin Williams is psychotic, but quietly so, in One Hour Photo.


Meet Sy Parrish. Sy (Robin Williams) works as a photo technician at a discount retail outlet, and he’s the subject of One Hour Photo. Some might consider his to be a lowly job, but he treats it as a calling, devoting all his expertise to giving professional quality to the snapshots that ordinary Joes take with disposable cameras. One of Sy’s best customers is Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), a housewife who’s always dropping off photos of herself, her husband Will (Michael Vartan), and their young son Jake (Dylan Smith). They might take their business elsewhere, though, if they knew that Sy has an entire wall in his apartment filled with duplicate snapshots of them.

Now, Sy would be easy to peg if his interest in the family were violent or sexual, but that’s not the case, even though he’s capable of violence and his sexuality is pretty messed-up. No, he’s obsessed with the Yorkins because his fondest wish is to be one of them. In his fantasies, he’s good old Uncle Sy, and he’s with them at all their happy occasions to share their joy. The benevolence of his dreams, however, makes him even more disturbing. He’s so out of touch with reality that he could snap if anything threatened his illusions, and because he comes out from behind his counter and attempts to ingratiate himself in their lives, he’s bound to discover that they aren’t the perfect family he wants them to be.

His character’s in almost every scene, and Williams responds with the most puzzling performance of his career. His oversize personality has never allowed him to disappear into a role. Here, he tries harder than he has ever done, but it doesn’t work. You’re always conscious of watching Robin Williams in a bad blond combover and glasses with frames a couple of decades out of style, pointedly not cracking jokes and never raising his voice. He’s so self-conscious that he broadcasts Sy’s creepiness instead of submerging it.

Yet this performance is strangely persuasive, perhaps because the actor’s struggle to repress his own impulses melds with the character’s need to do the same. Like the killer Williams played in Insomnia, Sy is constantly trying to maintain control, and he’s most unsettling when he momentarily loses it. Williams makes the character monstrous by playing him so creepily, but he also makes the monster a deeply human one by turning in the most vulnerable performance of his career. Sy’s reaction to being fired from his job is all the more moving because the actor flashes his anguish only for a second. His disintegration in the final third of the film is riveting stuff.

First-time filmmaker Mark Romanek is known for his work in music videos, and you can tell this from the attention paid to the film’s look. The retail store where Sy works is so clean and cheerless that it looks like something out of Kubrick. (Then again, don’t most real-life Wal-Marts and K-Marts look like something out of Kubrick? It’s interesting to compare this film visually to The Good Girl, which takes place in the same kind of environment.) Romanek and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth adopt a number of strategies to illustrate Sy’s lonesome world, including colored lights and an eyeball-searing nightmare sequence. When Sy projects himself into the Yorkins’ Christmas photo, the background objects come to life while the family remains immobile. The film has a few humorous interludes, such as Sy’s meditation on his customers, some of whom are just as obsessive as he is. (There’s also a nifty in-joke: The climactic sequence takes place at a hotel called the Edgerton.) Mostly, however, it concentrates on moody, deliberate, and stony cold atmosphere. It’s practically a French film — it strongly resembles Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips, Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, and other recent portraits of anomie. Long stretches have no dialogue, only the lushly dissonant score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek on the soundtrack.

That’s probably just as well, considering that the dialogue that is here is amateurish — during an argument, Nina tells Will, “You’re an emotionally neglectful husband and an emotionally neglectful father.” Romanek’s writing is much better when it comes to Sy’s voice-over narration. (“A photograph is a stand against time ... It says, ‘I was here. I existed. I was young. I was happy. And I had someone in the world who cared enough about me to take my picture.’ ”) Words like these help make Sy a tragic figure; he can be so eloquent about his work, yet he can’t begin to articulate what makes him so maladjusted. The narration never explains or even refers to Sy’s state of mind or the reason for any of his actions in the story, and the film’s all the more powerful for its silence.

Despite its efforts, however, One Hour Photo still comes to an overly pat conclusion about why Sy is the way he is. In the end, the story comes to surprisingly little. However, Romanek’s cinematic skills suggest that if he gets better material, he’ll be worth watching in the future. Williams’ mesmerizing and troubling performance, the latest chapter in a career that has been both revelatory and frustrating, is worth watching now.

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