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One Hour Photo (R)
Fox Searchlight
Official Site
Director: Mark Romanek
Producers: Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon, Stan Wlodkowski
Written by: Mark Romanek
Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Dylan Smith, Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle

Rating: out of 5

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 the comic!

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 what happens…

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 a homily.

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.

—Ellen Whittier

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