Photos are curious things. I don’t particularly go out of my way to take photos, but when I do take them I sometimes (and I believe most of us do this) act “happier” than I really am. Rather it’s brandishing a big, fake smile, or a big, goofy smile, or doing something silly, I do it instinctively, without thinking. It’s all an act to “appear” happier than you really are. So when you look at a stranger’s album, you’ll almost always see the “fake happiness” of their life and never their real life, which leads you to ask yourself: Are they really as happy as they look? That question is the basis for writer/director Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo.
Robin Williams stars as Sy Parrish, an awkward and lonely photo technician at a generic discount supermarket. Sy is in his mid-40s, unmarried, lives alone, has no family or friends to speak off, and the best part of his day is going to work. To say that Sy is just a little bit obsessed with the photos his customers bring in is an understatement. Sy lives to develop photos for his stable of regulars, in particular Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) and her family. When we first see Sy and Nina, we know almost instantly that Sy has a crush on her.
Soon we realize Sy has a bad habit of fantasizing himself as part of Nina’s family, which includes her sensitive son Jake and free-wheeling and inattentive husband Will. Nina has no idea Sy exists, and her only acknowledgment of him is as “Sy the photo guy.” Sy’s connection to the Yorkins is all in his mind, the product of an overactive imagination, and although Sy makes attempts to insinuate himself into Jake and Nina’s lives, he’s much too aware of his own faults to fully “go for broke.” Then one day Sy comes into contact with a shattering family secret involving the Yorkins, and from that moment on, it’s only a matter of time before he cracks. The question is: How many people, besides himself, will be hurt when it finally happens?
When I first heard that Robin Williams was taking on a dark role (as Sy), I wasn’t all that impressed. I’ve always found something curiously creepy about Robin Williams. This is nothing against the man himself, since I’m sure he’s a fine human being, but the way Williams walks (he seems to waddle), talks (like he has a mouth full of marbles), and the way he looks (like a puffy dough boy), has always reminded me of that pervert across the street who peers out of his windows at kids playing on his lawn, and who you only see outside his house when he’s on his way to work or on his way back. I’ve always found Robin Williams to be just a little too creepy.
And maybe that’s why Williams is the perfect actor to play Sy. Who could be this awkward and pathetic and creepy and yet, and yet, you actually feel for the man, even after he’s completely lost his marbles? One Hour Photo reminds me of just how good of an actor Williams can be when he’s not jumping on tables or doing spontaneous impressions. Williams’ Sy is as believably strange and potentially dangerous as they come. No other actor (besides maybe William H. Macy (Panic)) could play such a pathetic character with so much untapped potential for mayhem.
Director Mark Romanek, who also wrote the script, has a firm grasp on his subjects. Sy’s voiceover ruminations on photos and those who takes them are not exactly groundbreaking, but they do bring a lot of (usually) unconsidered notions to the surface. Throughout One Hour Photo there is never any doubt that Romanek knows Sy very well, and this intimate knowledge of his subject matter transfers over well into his shooting style. One Hour Photo is not a glossy film, and if anything it looks like a gritty low-budget picture. Everything from the acting by star Robin Williams to the movie’s flow is all very low-key and unobtrusive. Scenes of Sy alone in his apartment, watching TV or staring up at a wall covered with photos of Nina Yorkin and her family, are downright unsettling. Every scene with Sy by himself — in his apartment, in his car, or even at the photo lab — all leads us to one inevitable question: What will happen when this disturbed man finally breaks?
The rest of One Hour Photo’s cast plays second fiddle to Williams, with the only standout being Connie Nielsen (Nina), who is practically unrecognizable from her role in Gladiator. Maybe it’s just the hair, or maybe it’s Nina’s homely attractiveness. One can see how Williams’ lonely Sy could have fallen so madly in love with her. Nina is a very accessible woman, and Nielsen plays her with the right combination of charm and unawareness of the effect she has on him. The rest of the cast are made up of unspectacular newcomers and although the husband and another character fits into the film’s ending, the rest don’t. Even Nielsen’s Nina doesn’t fit into the movie’s less-than spectacular Third Act. There is an extended cameo by Eriq La Salle (TV’s “ER”) as a Detective, but he looks just as unimpressed with his role as we are.
One Hour Photo is a good film with very interesting thoughts on photos and the people who takes them. Robin Williams is superb as the creepy and meek Sy, but the film left me with a shrug. It’s a nice little film, and Williams should be congratulated for taking on such a risky role (the movie has zero laughs in it (or at least any I could remember)), but after two hours with One Hour Photo, I found myself not sufficiently disturbed enough by its subject matter.
Mark Romanek (director) / Mark Romanek (screenplay)
CAST: Robin Williams …. Seymour ‘Sy’ Parrish
Connie Nielsen …. Nina Yorkin
Michael Vartan …. Will Yorkin
Gary Cole …. Bill Owens
Dylan Smith …. Jake Yorkin
Eriq La Salle …. Detective Van Der Zee