Appellate Judge Tom Becker is always fascinated by a developing story.
The things that we fear the most have already happened to us…
Call me humorless, call me curmudgeonly, but the shtick of Robin Williams has always irritated me. The crazy, caffeinated antics that endeared the actor to millions left me cold; I'd rather drink curdled milk than sit through an entire episode of Mork and Mindy, and if you're going to make me sit through Patch Adams, please make sure all sharp objects are secured.
On the other hand, the restrained Williams can be an interesting performer—often because there's a certain amount of tension in the characterization simply because we're seeing Williams restrained. This is certainly the case in One Hour Photo, in which he plays a man whose entire life seems built of restraint. It's a great role for Williams, but is One Hour Photo a great movie?
Facts of the Case
The Yorkins seem like the perfect family: successful dad Will (Michael Vartan, Demoted), pretty Mom Nina (Connie Nielsen, Basic), and cute pre-teen son Jake (Dylan Smith, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl). Certainly, they appear perfect to photo tech Sy Parrish (Williams), who develops their many rolls of film at the local SavMart.
While the Yorkins aren't perfect—Nina and Will are having some serious troubles—Sy has idealized them to the point of obsession.
Like most obsessions, this one is about to boil over in particularly unsavory ways.
Were it not for Robin Williams' atypical and very good performance, One Hour Photo would likely have been long forgotten. Beyond Williams' work, One Hour Photo is an unremarkable thriller that has potential but ends up going off the rails.
Writer/director Mark Romanek seems to have two films going on. One film is about Sy the Photo Guy, the drone at the chain store. This is a person we encounter daily, a person we interact with on a regular basis—service providers, who sometimes know us in surprisingly intimate ways without ever really knowing us at all. We probably don't think much about the people who work in the stores we frequent, deliver our mail, ferry us on trains and buses; they're just people doing their jobs, and we are just customers. The notion that someone you deal with professionally would take an unhealthy interest in you is inherently creepy, and Romanek and Williams do well getting that creep factor across.
But Romanek wields a heavy hand, pretty much from the get-go. The film opens with Sy being questioned by the police about something that he has done to the Yorkins, so right out of the gate, we have an idea how this is going to go, that it's going to follow the thriller through line. Had Romanek not given us this framing device, we might have been duped into thinking the film was a character study of a lonely man, kind of a sinister Marty.
The police interrogation framing also gives Romanek the opportunity to allow Sy to verbalize his thoughts. He has a lot to say about the significance of photos to our lives. Unfortunately, these comments often come off as both portentous and trite, like something you'd hear in a Kodak commercial years ago. In a smarter film, Sy's simplistic commentary might be used ironically to flesh out the character, like Terrence Malik did in Badlands; unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case here. These comments also, inadvertently, date the film; with cell phone and digital cameras everywhere, the idea that having your picture taken signals that someone "cared enough" to take your picture just doesn't ring true anymore.
Williams creates a character who is both chilling and pathetic. He's fastidious about his work, which makes him an oddball and an object of derision (though if the guy from Undercover Boss showed up, he'd probably write Sy a huge check and promote him). That he is so lonely and socially inept makes him almost painful to watch; you're almost rooting for things to work out for him. Unfortunately, there's little in the script that makes him sympathetic. Romanek seems to view Sy the way other people do, as a weird and insignificant person who is uncomfortable to be around. Williams creates the humanity, paring down the trademark kinetic energy, giving us, instead, small, subtle gestures and movements; there is not one scene, not even a fantasy sequence, where the actor is allowed to "cut loose." It's strong work, and it outshines the film around it.
Had Romanek focused his story as more of a character study with an "event" of some sort at the end, he might have come up with something akin to Taxi Driver; instead, he ratchets up the sinister and tosses out a climax from the erotic thriller playbook that just seems forced. Pieces of the story don't fit. For instance: Sy seems attracted to the Yorkins because they are a perfect family, and he would love to be Uncle Sy; he's particularly drawn to young Jake. But in the collage of Yorkin photos he's got on the wall of his sad apartment (every stalker has such a collage), there are pictures of Nina when she was pregnant. This just doesn't jibe with the notion that Sy's deep desire is to be a member of the family; it makes it seem more like he's just stalking Nina.
Romanek also sledgehammers the business of the dark secrets behind the perfect-looking family. Nina's little more than a cipher who seems to spend her days at the mall, and dad Will is a dishonest oaf. In one effectively awkward scene, Sy meets Will at the SavMart for the first time, recognizing him from his family photos. Sy's obvious adoration is disquieting, but it's made worse by Will's impatience with the guy; he strains to be polite, and the scene ends with Will saying something to Jake within Sy's earshot that hurts the photo guy. Frankly, crazy as Sy might be, these people barely merit his attention.
The draw of this film is seeing Robin Williams giving a serious performance, and he does not disappoint. It's kind of a shame, though, that in the end, One Hour Photo is no more than a mediocre thriller.
For a film that was reasonably well received but didn't have a whole lot of impact, Fox offers up a better-than-average release. The transfer isn't great, but it's solid. There are bits of print damage and a kind of dullness to it, but it's overall clean and does the job. The DTS surround track is rich and clear.
One Hour Photo was released on DVD in 2003 with a healthy complement of supplements. One Hour Photo (Blu-ray) ports over the older material and adds some new stuff.
From the earlier release, we get a commentary with Romanek and Williams, which is subtitled; a "Cinemax Featurette" with clips and sound-bites from Williams and Romanek; Williams and Romanek also sit down with Charlie Rose for an interview on his show; and "Sundance: Anatomy of a Scene" takes an in-depth look at the scene in which Sy and Will meet at the SavMart.
New to this release: Storyboards; Multi-Angle Location Scouting footage; Cast Rehearsals; "Lensing One Hour Photo," which is a collection of behind-the-scenes footage with a running commentary on the production by Romanek; Main Title Test; Sy's Nightmare Elements; and trailers, TV spots, and promotional material.
The supplements are categorized as "Pre-Production," "Production," and "Post-Production." Here and there, all the categorizing makes navigation a bit cumbersome.
One Hour Photo tries to straddle the line between thriller and character study, but falls short of each. It's not a bad movie by any means, just not as involving as it might have been.
Robin Williams walks unscathed, but Mark Romanek might want to spend a bit more time at the drawing board.
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