One Hour Photo (2002) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for sexual content and language
Running Time: 96 min.

Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Dylan Smith
Director: Mark Romanek
Screenplay: Mark Romanek

Review published September 10, 2002

2002 has been a busy year for Robin Williams with three films hitting theaters, and more interestingly, three films in which he plays a psycho bad guy.  Williams once started out as an edgy comic, but over the years he has become known and accepted by the mainstream, to the point where he is no longer seen as an artist on the fringe.  The three films seem to represent a longing for his edgier days, not really content to play it safe and easy, and wanting to explore his talents more as an actor than entertainer.  While Death to Smoochy was misguided and Williams seemed somewhat miscast in Insomnia, it's in One Hour Photo that he finally hits his stride as the closet psychopath, with a performance that's scary yet sympathetic at the same time, and ranks among one of his best acting roles in many years.

Williams plays Sy Parrish, "the photo guy" at a local department store, who takes pride in a job well done above and beyond what's normally called for.  Having a rather empty life of his own, he takes enjoyment in seeing into the lives of others as represented in their family or vacation photos, and one family in particular gives him the most satisfaction.  He has followed the life of the Yorkins for many years, seeing the young son Jake grow up from infancy.  Although never knowing them outside of the store, Sy feels a part of the family, and even spends much time imagining himself so, hoping one day he might even be called "Uncle Sy" by Jake (Smith, Pirates of the Caribbean), now nine years old.  Whenever developing their prints, Sy makes sure to make an extra set for himself, and over the years he has made a large mural in his home as a shrine to the family he has adopted as his own, whether they know it or not.  However, life isn't as rosy as it may seem for the Yorkins, as another set of photos arrives from the mistress of the husband, and Sy has a hard time accepting the potential breakup of "his family".

First-time writer-director Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go, Static), who previously earned his reputation directing music videos for Madonna and Nine Inch Nails, does a masterful job in storytelling with a subdued but very effective style that develops slowly, but maintains a high interest level through keen insights and clever character portrayal.  The character of Sy isn't some crackpot, and in fact, may not be too far off from many people you might deal with on a day to day basis, This makes One Hour Photo all the more disturbing, because it makes us feel like anyone we might talk to could have a closet obsession without us ever realizing it.  At an early point in the film, young Jake feels sorry for Sy because he detects that Sy has no friends, and sends him good thoughts, and so we too feel sad at a lonely life for a man who seemingly wishes good things for others, and even if Sy crosses the line, we still wish him well. 

Credit also goes heavily to Robin Williams for giving a complex performance, being both eerily unnerving yet warm and friendly all at the same time.  An actor of lesser talent could have proven ruinous for the film, as most of the time we need to know what he is thinking without lengthy explanatory narratives, and Williams gives you an indication that there is something going on even when he is just staring blankly at nothingness.  Not since Awakenings has he given as subdued a performance with as strong a presence onscreen.

One Hour Photo is almost without flaw for the first hour, and although we sense from the beginning the tale is headed for a dark turn, when it finally gets there, the film loses its sure footing.  Mark Romanek may know his characters inside and out but has some trouble with his understanding of law enforcement.  When Sy's behavior finally leads to the authorities having to be notified, the movie as a whole goes from realistically disturbing into a poorly researched crime thriller.  A fictitious arm of the police department know as the "Threat Management" division are called to the scene, and although no actual threats are made, they investigate Sy as if he had threatened mass homicide.  Search warrants are granted with no evidence of an actual crime committed, guns are drawn whenever cops feel they are close to catching him although they have no reason to suspect he is armed or dangerous.  As a result, credibility is compromised, and One Hour Photo descends rapidly into the realm of absurdity. 

Despite the flubbed climax, I still must recommend One Hour Photo simply because of all the ideas and moments it brings up so well to that point, and it's especially recommended for those wanting to see Robin Williams at his finest.  It is a dark and disturbing film, even when it is funny, and which serves as cautionary entertainment for all of us.  If I had to sum it all up in one line I'd say that One Hour Photo is a unique, refreshing, smart, and worthwhile film, but like the title implies, all of the work seems to have been developed and completed before an hour is done.

Qwipster's rating:

1999 Vince Leo