by Rob Gonsalves
The very name carries a whiff of defeat and resignation: Sy Parrish -- "Sy" is short for Seymour, cinema's favorite shorthand for "loser" at least since "Little Shop of Horrors." In 2002's most loudly heralded bit of stunt casting, Robin Williams, dialing himself down to 1 or 2, plays this bleached lost soul Sy, who works diligently at a photo center in a suburban mall.Sy's surroundings have been drained of color, too, as if to match his pallor, or as if to suggest that the implacable sameness of retail long ago bled the life from his veins. Nothing pumps through Sy's body now except need, envy, and, so we gradually gather, psychosis.
"A cold and annoying experience."
One Hour Photo is a slick piece of work, with a conscientiously clenched performance by Williams, but it left me cold and sickened in all the wrong ways. First-time writer-director Mark Romanek, yet another MTV refugee, seems to have taken the entirety of his film's ideas from a Beatles song: He's a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Isn't he a bit like you and me? Well, no. Most of us do not fixate on a seemingly happy family to the extent of pasting photos of them all over the wall. (The image of Sy surveying his furtive collection recalls Robert De Niro playing to a cardboard audience in The King of Comedy -- one of many films Romanek burgles -- and it was scarier and funnier there.) Sy zeroes in on the presentable Nina (Connie Nielsen) and her darling son Jake (Dylan Smith), suffering the father of the family, Will (Michael Vartan), as a necessary irritant, but only up to a point.
It would be nice to report, as one of the ad blurbs does, that the movie does for photo developing what Psycho did for showers; certainly the premise -- a wingnut stroking his gloved and trembling hands over images of you and yours -- is an outsize advertisement for digital cameras. But Thomas Harris' Red Dragon gave us a similarly employed killer 21 years ago; read by millions, and adapted twice for the big screen, the story didn't frighten masses away from photo kiosks. The movie uses Sy as a watcher, an eternal outsider doomed to see, over and over again, what he cannot have -- family happiness, the joy of companionship. Such a figure demands serious treatment (think what Kieslowski might've done with it), not the artsy audience-tweaking schlock this fundamentally is.
Any film that counts cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club) in its corner almost has to be eye candy, and One Hour Photo is; the contrast between the family's warm, earth-colored furnishings and Sy's bleak white ice cave of an apartment is so stark that you could conceivably watch the film with the sound off and still catch most of the meanings. But, unfortunately, the sound is on, and we get Sy in voice-over ruminating on the significance of photos: "Nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget." So what does Sy want to forget? What brought him to this place in his existence? Romanek can't be bothered with such stuff; he's too eager to get to the climax, as it were, wherein Sy turns knife-wielding madman and terrorizes his prey into disgusting, intimate tableaux for his camera.
At times, Romanek seems scarcely different from Sy. His camera feasts on Sy's emptiness and hardly finds time to endow Nina or Jake with personalities; they're just nice wealthy people in danger. And therein lies One Hour Photo's real sickness: There's an unacknowledged and diseased class resentment rattling around inside this psychothriller, and it bounces both ways. "You have a beautiful house," Sy tells the wary Will, "if you don't mind my saying so." Never mind why a family well-off enough to have a flat widescreen TV wouldn't have gotten a digital camera years ago. One Hour Photo comes close to saying that the upper class shouldn't trust the smiling guy behind the retail counter. It also seems to say that if the Ninas and Wills of the world get a Sy on their case, they have it coming.
At the center of all this is Robin Williams, in the final panel of his twisted anti-Patch Adams triptych of 2002, giving himself dutifully to the role and to the director's "vision." Everyone seems amazed that Williams is playing a repressed psycho, as if he hadn't already done that just a few months prior in Insomnia, in which we were not encouraged to feel, as the sensitive Jake does, that the psycho is sad and pitiable. Williams is amped to give a classic creepy performance, but once the script has him fondling a hunting knife it's all over for him.
Romanek pushes the movie in a wrong, stupid direction, and it ends rather haplessly, with Sy suggesting that he knows something about Will that the police -- and, up to this point, the audience -- don't know (or perhaps he's referring to a trauma in his own past -- one can't be sure). Well, which is it? Is Sy a madman or a misguided guardian angel? We sit with the uncertainty of that when the lights go up, and it's not a fine, unsettled uncertainty -- it's closer to the ruffled, violated feeling of having been manipulated for its own sake."One Hour Photo" is calculated to send 'em out buzzing, but it's the wrong kind of buzz.
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originally posted: 12/27/06 19:51:45