One Hour Photo (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One Hour Photo is an actor's triumph - a fitting destination for Robin Williams to reach after essaying increasingly darker and more dysfunctional characters in films like Death to Smoochy and Insomnia. The actor, who once was known almost exclusively for his comedic roles, has painstakingly reworked his image over the past few years, following in the footsteps of other funny men who have displayed impressive dramatic ability and range. Any lingering doubts about Williams' ability to play a role completely straight (and there shouldn't be any after Good Will Hunting and Insomnia) are erased by One Hour Photo. The film has its share of flaws, but none of them are related to the lead actor's powerful and haunting portrayal. Williams nails it.

Sy Parrish (Williams) is the "photo guy" at the local SavMart (a WalMart clone with fewer customers). For Sy, developing photos isn't a job - it's an art. He pays strict attention to even the tiniest details. If the blue shift is off by a few points, he calls a repairman. He gives his best customers free upgrades on the size of their prints, or, as a birthday gift, a disposable camera. Part of the reason for Sy's dedication is that he has no life. When he goes home, he sits alone in a spartan room and watches television. His apartment is undecorated except for one wall, which is papered with hundreds of photographs - extra copies he has made over the years of snapshots brought to him by the Yorkin family - Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielsen), and their son, Jakob (Dylan Smith). Sy has been living vicariously through these people for more than half a decade, getting to know them through their photographs and the occasional, brief contact he has with them at the store. To them, he's just the friendly face they see when they get their photographs developed - someone acknowledged, then forgotten. To him, they are an adopted family. In his creepy fantasy world, he is "Uncle Sy".

Sy's precarious mental balance begins to shift when a series of events push him past the point of instability. First, his boss (Gary Cole) shows an increasing displeasure with Sy's work. He senses there's something wrong with SavMart's ideal employee. Secondly, Sy's desire to enjoy more substantive contact with the Yorkins causes him to act irrationally - buying Jakob a toy, showing up at his soccer practice, and reading the same book as Nina. Finally, a coincidence allows Sy to discover that Will is having an affair, and he feels deeply betrayed. This man, who has everything Sy longs for, is cheating on his wife and neglecting his son. Such a thing is not to be tolerated, and Sy, whose personality is the kind for which the word "postal" was coined, decides to take matters into his own hands.

For much of its running length, One Hour Photo is an effective portrait of a lonely, deranged human being and the increasingly frantic rhythms of his out-of-kilter existence. As far as the audience knows, Sy has no friends, no family, no past, and no future. He crosses the line from being harmless and pathetic to being dangerous when he can no longer differentiate between fantasy and reality. There comes a time when it is no longer enough for him to watch and imagine, when the role of distant voyeur no longer satisfies him. The move from passive to active participant is not only predictable but inevitable given the psychological profile put together by filmmaker Mark Romanek (a music video director making his first feature).

The film stumbles near the end, when One Hour Photo takes a stab at explaining Sy's psychosis by falling back on a familiar cliché. Williams' powerhouse performance during the key revelation scene is so good that it almost excuses the weakness of the screenplay at this juncture - almost, but not quite. Sy is a more compelling character when we're trying to figure him out. Nevertheless, any weaknesses associated with the final 15 minutes are easily forgiven in light of the 80 minutes that precede them. Dark and unrepentant, this excursion into the epicenter of percolating mental instability is not easily dismissed or forgotten.

One Hour Photo (United States, 2002)

Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Dylan Smith, Erin Daniels, Gary Cole
Screenplay: Mark Romanek
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2002-08-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1