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One Hour Photo

Mark Romanek, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.0



Posted: September 15, 2002

By Laurence Station

According to the official web site for One Hour Photo, director Mark Romanek's inspiration for the tale of perfect-family-obsessed, image processing zero Seymour "Sy" Parrish (Robin Williams) came from the great paranoid outsider films of the '70s, classics like Taxi Driver and The Conversation. Unlike those notable efforts, however, One Hour Photo fails to delve deeply and convincingly enough beneath the surface of its troubled lead's psyche to evince justifiable reasons for the increasingly confrontational actions the character takes.

Sy "the Photo Guy" Parrish is a long-term (11 years, to be exact) employee of SavMart, a large, generic discount store that offers one-stop shopping for its suburbanite patrons. Sy's job is straightforward: develop the photos people bring him and smile a lot. For Sy, however, it's more than just a job. As he tells us through voiceovers (presumably a tip of the hat to Taxi Driver): "When we look through our photo albums, we're seeing a record of only the happy moments in our lives. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget." For Sy, the embodiment of such happy moments is the seemingly perfect Yorkin family. Over the years he's developed images of everything from Nina and Will's (Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan) newlywed snapshots to the birth and childhood of their nine-year-old son, Jake (Dylan Smith). Living vicariously through the seemingly content and successful upper middle class Yorkins, the unmarried, essentially friendless Sy maintains some semblance of stability.

But then things go haywire. Sy's clumsy attempt to ingratiate himself into the family raises caution flags about his mental well-being. When he shows up at Jake's soccer practice to walk the boy home, there's a definite sense that Sy's motivations might be leaning toward a parent's worst nightmare. That proves a red herring, though, as Sy's true problem surfaces when he discovers that the outwardly well-adjusted Yorkins are hardly the ideal family he'd pegged them to be. Sy's sense of betrayal at real life and its accompanying problems ruining his concentrated fantasy (one that includes daydreams in which he inserts himself into the picture as good ol' Uncle Sy) sends him to the breaking point -- that, and the fact that he's summarily fired after the store manager discovers he's been making a conspicuously large amount of unpaid-for extra prints over the years.

The steps Sy takes to expose the fraud of the Yorkins' domestic bliss prove One Hour Photo's high point. The reason for this success, aside from convincingly taut direction, is Robin Williams, who's proven his ability to play creepy before (most recently with Insomnia). But the role of Sy the Maladjusted Photo Guy is a career triumph. Williams is truly menacing toward the end of the film, and the fact that he achieves that menace without going completely over the top, yet always seemingly one second away from exploding, is a masterful display of restraint. The film's climactic confrontation between Sy and Will Yorkin is skillfully and dramatically well executed. Indeed, technically, from Jeff (Fight Club) Cronenweth's photography to production designer Tom (The Cell) Foden's fluorescently washed, antiseptically spotless SavMart-as-wasteland look, One Hour Photo is smartly staged and precisely shot.

So what's not to like? Well, despite a brilliant turn by Williams, it's the character, or lack thereof, of Sy. Key revelations regarding Sy's background come at the very end of the film -- there are few clues as to what sort of person he was before taking the photo-processing job. In short, he's a cipher, an empty shell. By itself, that might have been enough: sometimes, there are no explanations for why people are the way they are. But One Hour Photo declines to leave Sy's psychosis a question mark, and the thin, obvious and all-too-pat revelation (complete with police interrogation room framing device) undermines the movie's entire structure, reducing Sy to a psychology 101 textbook example rather than a flesh and blood human being. If you're going to establish the lead outsider as a black hole, leave it at that. Once you impose a background on him, however, all bets are off: a workable explanation has to be given to fit the character's motivations, or the inherent logic of the piece is irretrievably flawed. One Hour Photo works, when it does, mostly thanks to Williams' capable shouldering of his load. But Romanek's inability to leave well enough alone insures that, unlike those unhinged '70s loner pictures, it will be remembered more as a tribute effort than an effective thriller in its own right.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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