Which version of Robin Williams do you prefer, the
good twin or the evil twin? The good twin is a brilliant,
imaginative comedian. He can cut, splice, and dub hilarious
metaphors faster than any comic I’ve ever seen. The evil twin
is a Hollywood shill who stumps for the worst kind of sticky-sweet
family values in tripe like Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook,
etc. He gets a big paycheck for repressing his chaotic creativity
in favor of convention. Williams might as well brandish a
tattoo reading, “There’s no place like home” along with a
dollar sign on his hairy forearm. Does Williams have an ambivalent
relationship to his own creativity? Does he need to put it
in its place?
Every time I see one of Williams’ films, I hope against
hope that the good twin will appear and vanquish his tiresome
brother. Please, I think, stop him before he preaches again!
Perhaps, like me, you were intrigued by the idea of Williams
playing a psychopath in One Hour Photo. How family
friendly or dogmatic could this role possibly be? At
last, some real comic relief, or at least some relief for
Williams plays Sy Parrish, an employee at a large discount
store, who runs the photo development department. He takes
his job very seriously, believing that candid photos are the
sacred relics of family life and deserve to be treated with
the greatest care and love.
Sy himself, of course, is consumed with loneliness and frustration.
It isn’t easy being a consummate mousy movie psychopath. He
seethes with all the sickly symptoms—the unflattering haircut,
the drab wardrobe, the cheerless apartment. Add to these a
dire lack of family or friends, no sex life, and a Toyota
with an ominously cracked windshield and it’s only a matter
of time. He’s a childless man in squeaky, geeky, sensible
shoes! Don’t push him, because he’s close to the edge!
The driving question in One Hour Photo is exactly
when and how Sy will lose control. Because Sy’s world is a
vacuum, his imagination rushes in to fill the void. He falls
in love with one of the families whose pictures he develops
and imagines being part of their happy home. Will and Nina
Yorkin (Vartan and Nielsen are a chic young
couple with a charming 9-year-old son, Jake (Smith).
Little do they know that Sy has developed extra sets of their
prints for his personal use. He arranges the photos as a wall-sized
shrine in his living room, the arts and crafts of the lonely
bachelor. It’s only a matter of time until he starts surreptitiously
taking pictures of the Yorkins himself to add to his collection.
Caution: from this point on the review will contain spoilers
about the plot, so read no further if you don’t want to know
Sy wants to get closer to this family in real life. But
what if the Yorkins don’t want to get to know him any better?
Or what if he discovers that their world isn’t really as perfect
as it seems? As Sy painfully and unsuccessfully tries to befriend
the Yorkins, his world and theirs begin to unravel precipitating
a violent crisis around Sy’s discovery that Will is having
an affair that threatens to destroy his family and the loss
of Sy’s beloved job.
Although the movie certainly tempts you to brace for a bloodbath,
don’t expect Sy to show up with an ax to slaughter the fallible
family. Oh no! Instead, here comes Robin Williams’ evil twin,
and he’s got an ax all right—the same damn ax to grind about
family values! Sy’s breakdown shocks Will into returning to
the family fold where his wife and child welcome him with
open arms. As for Sy’s meltdown, well, it turns out he was
an abused child! That’s right—incredibly, One Hour Photo
is actually another tribute to the need for families to stay
together and love one another, otherwise mutants like Sy could
result. Sy Parrish is none other than Patch Adams with a traumatic
childhood and an undiagnosed psychosis that prevent him from
making it to medical school to cheerfully “help others.” But
it’s not too late—he can still do his part for the cause as
a symbolic freak.
This film has many things going for it, including director
Mark Romanek, famous for directing some decidedly stylish
and decadent videos that seem to fly in the face of family
values—Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Nine Inch Nails’
“The Perfect Drug” and “Closer,” etc. One Hour Photo
is as clean and glossy as a home decorating magazine. No scene
is out of place and the cinematography is crisp and efficient.
In fact, there is an overall lack of risk of any kind. The
film is sleek and serviceable, but doesn’t inspire much visual
delight. It relies on tired clichés about photography as an
invasive and dangerous art form. The actors, including Williams,
are all very good, but a bit colorless, and I can’t blame
them. It’s tough to stand out when you’re being asked to illustrate
If you want to enjoy Robin Williams at his best, rent one
of his stand-up performances or see him ranting at high-speed
on late night talk shows. If you want to see some films that
are more eye-opening about photography and danger, try some
of the better, more disturbing classics of the genre, including
Rear Window, Blow-Up, or the creepy Peeping Tom,
which was pulled from distribution on first release for the
risks it took.