One Hour Photo

on August 21, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
   Not since “American Beauty” has a film so effectively skewered the American Dream. While more overt than the earlier contemporary classic, “One Hour Photo” not only calls into question the façade of suburban family life but does so with a mature, multilayered approach, using the camera to convey its themes as much as the dialogue and action.

   In his most formidable role to date, Robin Williams gives a textured performance as Sy “the photo guy” Parrish, the manager of a one-hour photo developer inside a suburban discount department store. Sy seems decent enough, if a little overzealous when it comes to the quality of his product. But when he returns home after work and a ritualistic supper at a local diner, his otherwise virtually bare apartment reveals Sy's perturbing side: an entire wall methodically papered with pictures of his favorite customers, the Yorkins.

   Over the years, Sy has slid through triplicates of the Yorkins' rolls of film, documenting the courtship and marriage of Nina and Will (Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan), the birth of their son Jake (Dylan Smith), birthday celebrations, family vacations, etc. Gradually he has inserted himself into his fantasy about their perfect life, creating a role for himself as “Uncle” Sy.

   But, as Sy says in voiceover, “People take pictures of the happy moments in their lives. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” Not all is as it seems in the Yorkin household, and when Sy discovers this, he takes matters into his own hands.

   Director/scribe Mark Romanek, a music video helmer, has infused his film with visual realizations of the story. One of his more obvious devices is the framing of a scene from the point of view of Sy's point-and-shoot. But he also takes the viewer inside the machinations of the camera and a photo developing machine. And Sy's fantasies morph into literal photographs. Even Romanek's exhaustive research--such as the word “snapshot's” origin as a hunting term--isn't merely a random factoid but a metaphor for Sy's stakeout of the Yorkin household. Perhaps Romanek's most visually stunning scene is a dream, set in a sterile white department store, in which Sy's eyes gush blood, symbolizing the pain that what he has seen has caused him.

   All of these cinematic intricacies would be for naught without the superb portrayal by Williams, virtually unrecognizable with a slight paunch and albino-like coloring. His detailed characterization has resulted in a nuanced performance that, were it not for an overbearing score, would more interestingly call into question whether Sy's antisocial behavior is merely awkward or indeed threatening. It is a testament to Williams' untapped talent that he pulls off a dialogue-dependent ending that otherwise would have been perceived as too pat. Starring Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole and Eriq La Salle. Directed and written by Mark Romanek. Produced by Christine Vachon, Pam Koffler and Stan Wlodowski. A Fox Searchlight release. Psychological thriller. Rated R for sexual content and language. Running time: 98 min

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