Robin Williams gets creepy in the portentous One Hour Photo
Robin Williams has always been a little scary, so it’s not surprising to find him playing villains effectively—in Insomnia earlier this year and now in One Hour Photo. He can be creepy and pathetic at the same time, and that serves the new film especially well.
But as an obsessive film about an obsessive character, One Hour Photo oozes portentousness without ever creating any genuine emotional substance; all that is left is Williams, who evokes several varieties and degrees of deranged loneliness while navigating a script that is full of pretensions and short on real insight.
Writer-director Mark Romanek has cooked the whole thing up as an arty psychothriller, with Williams playing Sy Parrish, a photo processor at a chain store in a suburban mall. Sy is a mousy perfectionist and a full-time lonely guy who indulges in vicarious fantasies of relationships with the Yorkins, a young family of three whose copious photos of themselves he processes and, on the sly, collects.
The Yorkins’ photos seem to be the sole pleasure of his drastically solitary existence, but it soon becomes clear that they are also fetishes for Sy’s identification with the Yorkins and his wishful projection of himself as a member of their picture-perfect family. The largest wall in his apartment is a shrine-in-progress almost completely covered by the Yorkin snapshots he’s printed for himself.
The wall of photos is an early indication that Sy’s Yorkin fixation has a touch of madness to it, and things get quietly weirder when Sy starts following the Yorkins’ little boy Jakub to soccer practice. But things get distinctly menacing when Sy begins to realize that all is not well in the Yorkins’ marriage. And when he gets photographic evidence that Will Yorkin is having an affair with a woman from work, he transforms into an avenging stalker armed with a camera and a hunting knife (both shoplifted from the store, from which he has in the meantime been fired—for the discrepancies between his print counts and sales totals).
The gruesome attack promised by the hunting knife gets deflected into morbid psychology in the film’s climax, but the portrait of Sy’s patently disturbed character never really coheres apart from Williams’ skillful miming of flustered neurosis and repression. The script’s Sy is a voyeur, a lonely fantasist, a pettily sadistic avenger, a photomane, a closet pornographer and, apparently, the victim of childhood trauma and abuse—which makes for a trendy resume but not for a convincing character study.
The film itself is absurdly photo-crazy, but much more coldly so than Williams’ Sy is. Some secondary characters have the names of famous photographers, and the Yorkins seem to live more in their snapshots than in their own lives. When Sy bolts through a hotel conference room, a lecture on retinal degeneration is in progress.
And Jeff Cronenweth’s Kubrickian cinematography cultivates the look of snapshots as they appear in ads for camera technology. This sort of overdetermined cleverness makes the movie as pointless and superficial as Sy’s snapshot mural. Sy’s real problem is that he’s trapped in a movie (24 photo frames per second) and the filmmakers won’t let him out.