One Hour Photo

I’m glad my camera is digital

Main Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielson, Michael Vartan

Director: Mark Romanek

One Hour Photo is the story of Sy, the photo guy. Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) has worked at the SavMart photo lab for 11 years. He is obsessive about the quality of the prints he makes, and feels the importance of his place in society. After all, he is the one who provides people with documentation of the good times, their memories. He is particularly attached to one family, whose pictures he has been developing for years. The Yorkins, Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielson) and son Jake (Dylan Smith) seem to have it all. A beautiful house (not to mention beautiful selves), a loving marriage, a thriving son; they are the perfect family. Even though Sy himself notes that people only document the good things in photographs, that doesn’t keep him from forming an attachment to these people based solely on the photographs they take. As the movie progresses, we see that the perfect family is, of course, not perfect, and that Sy’s attachment to them is not healthy. No, not healthy at all.

The simply amazing focal point of this film is Robin Williams’ Sy. This is a man with nothing in his life. Really. Nothing at all. No family, no friends, no hobbies; only a job with few rewards and only the most superficial of human contact, and a hamster. He is disarmingly bland, from the clothes he wears (nice polyester slacks – those aren’t pants, they’re slacks) to the way he moves. He is the loneliest, saddest man you could meet. Even Jake, at the tender age of nine, sees the sadness in Sy. It isn’t at all surprising that Sy goes looking for some kind of human attachment. The problem is that he has no clue as to how to appropriately go about this. Initially I saw this character as lacking depth, as being stereotypical in its portrayal of the psycho loner. But I was wrong. I saw Sy as a stereotype because I see Sy every day. We all do. He’s everywhere. Not psycho-Sy, but lonely-Sy. Isolated-Sy. Damaged-Sy. The fact that there are so many people out there who are so alone is what makes Sy all the more sad and creepy. We don’t want to see this kind of misery, but we know it’s out there.

Robin Williams brings Sy to life in a most disturbing, yet heart-wrenching way. Knowing that the manic Williams is under there makes Sy’s mechanical, sterile existence more disarming. Through brilliant lighting and set design (not to mention fabulous photography by Jeff Cronenweth), Sy lives in a world of open, empty, whitewashed spaces. His life is a stark, pale void, while that of the Yorkins is full of color, depth and the wonderful chaos that Sy so craves. His daydreams of life at the Yorkins, and his place in that life, are some of the best scenes in the movie. His plodding attempts to make this a reality, some of the most painful.

Sy also delivers quite a bit of internal narrative about the nature of his job and the lives of others. He is surprisingly insightful, yet fails to apply any of that insight to his own life. As he begins to decompensate, which he surely must, the people around him finally take notice of both his plight and his pathology. As the story plays out, we are never sure if we should feel sorry for Sy, or fear him to the core. My guess is some of both.

Aside from the wonderful performance by Williams, the other actors are serviceable, but not much more. The Yorkin clan really serves only as a palette on which Sy paints a life he only dreams exists somewhere. The characters are not given a lot of depth, and the actors not a lot to work with. The same is true of Eriq La Salle as a police officer, and Gary Cole as Sy’s boss. Both good actors, but they are given little to do here. This is Sy’s show all the way.

Writer/director Mark Romanek definitely goes out on a limb here by giving us an antagonist psycho that isn’t really hurting anyone but himself (well, most of the time). He could have easily made this a hack and slash thriller but both he and Williams dare us to see something else. My one nit-picky complaint is that I don’t like the score (Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek). Not that I don’t like the actual music, it has a Phillip Glass thing going on that is a nice minimalist compliment to the minimalist life of Sy. My problem is that it’s too loud, too omnipresent, and overly doomful (a word I created just now) considering how the actual story plays out. Sometimes less is more.

The DVD has a wonderful extra in the form of an interview given by Wiliams and Romanek to Charlie Rose. Williams is in typical form, with running jokes and wordplay. While he does have some serious things to say about the movie, seeing this funny, goofy actor as himself gives you even more respect for his repressed and rigid portrayal of Sy.

Overall, my recommendation is to try and go into One Hour Photo not expecting a thriller. It certainly has a lot of thriller elements, but if you look past those, it’s also a painful character study of a sad, lonely, disturbed and creepy man. It’s actually worth seeing just for the performance of Williams, and more than worth seeing for the ride he’ll take you on. 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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