One Hour Photo

| September 5, 2002

Music video directors are so used to creating imagery without context that it comes as no surprise when someone like Mark Romanek brings hordes of visual flair to his feature debut but fails to have enough material to back it up. In One Hour Photo, perhaps more noteworthy as Robin Williams’ latest and most successful attempt to shed his sappy image, Romanek brings all his artistic skills to bear and ends up creating an affecting mood piece that falls short as both a thriller and a character study.
Williams plays Sy Parrish, a lonely, poultry-faced employee at an instant photo boutique in a Wal-Mart style superstore. Without any family, friends, or discernible life of his own, Sy fixates on his customers, in particular, the Yorkin family, who appear to be the very image of a well-adjusted nuclear American family. Having processed the Yorkins photos for nearly ten years, Sy has watched both Nina and Will’s relationship progress and their young boy Jakob grow up. In fact, Sy feels so attached to the family that throughout the film he imagines himself a favorite uncle to Jakob and a fixture in their lives.
Romanek imaginatively visualizes Sy’s fantasies, or should I saw delusions, and he effectively depicts Sy’s demented desire for acceptance and love that he clearly never got from his own family. Williams invests his character with a well-modulated restraint and a perfect sense of deviance that keeps both the characters in the film and the audience on guard against a person who is off-kilter enough that a 10-year old child can sense his loneliness. From the way he pushes his glasses to his face to the awkward manner in which he attempts to ingratiate himself to the Yorkins, Williams pulls back on his normally hyperactive tendencies and allows Sy’s desperation and nerves to emanate from behind his controlled and inept social demeanor.
The rest of the cast comes through admirably as well. Connie Nielsen displays some versatility as the warm, intelligent Nina whose countless photographs of family harmony belie the everyday strife that comes with keeping a happy family together. Michael Vartan, fresh from TV’s Alias, is the trendy workaholic father who has some secrets of his own, secrets to which Sy and his photo outlet are soon privy. The film toys with thriller conventions as Romanek keeps us uneasy with Sy’s increasingly brazen behavior. He strikes up a relationship with the Yorkin’s young son and constantly oversteps his bounds by blurting out inappropriate comments to his parents. But the director seems neither to be interested in what Sy does nor in why he does it, and therein lays the problem with the film.
Impressively successful at developing a mounting sense of disquiet and anxiety throughout the film, Romanek falters when he attempts to give Sy a more concrete purpose in the latter half of the film. After some problems at work, Sy loses his comfort zone and stops fantasizing about having a role in the Yorkin’s family. His illusions about their happiness are shattered just as the one fulfilling part of his life crumbles, and that combination of disaster causes him to begin manipulating the Yorkins’ lives. His descent into violence provides a few agonizingly tense scenes, but his motivation for his actions is never convincing. The film’s final revelation about Sy is little more than a facile talk-show explanation for a previously complex character and coupled with Williams’ obvious, overwrought voice-overs, the movie sacrifices much of what it achieves in tone and image for a heavy-handed reduction of Sy’s character from abhorrent cipher to sympathetic, well-meaning victim. Sometimes ambiguity serves a story better, and in a film that toys with the idea of evil springing from the mundane and disregarded, some uncertainty would have been more powerful.
The film is nonetheless effective at conjuring feelings of anxiety and despair, both for the family that is victimized and the faceless man who struggles to make a human connection the only way he can. Romanek’s striking visual sense serves the story very well. The bland colors of Sy’s apartment and workplace are in sharp contrast to the vitality and brightness of the colors at the Yorkin’s house and throughout the rest of Sy’s idealized suburban world. Williams’ work is impressive, and Romanek shows definite promise, but eventually the themes of the film get warped and compromised by a disappointing descent into cliché.

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