The Kinks’ Ray Davies once sang, “People take pictures of each other, just to prove that they really existed. People take pictures of each other — and the moment will last them forever, of a time when they mattered to someone.” In One Hour Photo, Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) remarks, “If pictures have anything to say, it’s this: I was here, I existed. I was young and happy and someone cared enough about me to take my picture.” The sentiments are too confluent to be coincidental, even if the tone is considerably different. In some respects, these thoughts are at the core of Mark Romanek’s film about a man who — with the notable exceptions of the police photographs at the beginning of the movie and an earlier time only hinted at late in the film — never mattered that much to anyone. It’s a powerful statement in a movie that has a genuinely unsettling universal relevance for about 90 percent of its length. Romanek’s low-budget project was blessed by the participation of Robin Williams, who here transcends even such notable accomplishments as those in Death to Smoochy and Insomnia. Where those films presented Williams in anything but a cuddly manner, they utilized aspects of his personality. Here, nothing of Williams remains. It’s an entirely separate creation — and a wholly brilliant one. Never once does Williams fall back on any of his usual shtick. This much of the film works completely. So too does Romanek’s portrayal of Williams as a nebbishy photo counter clerk in a giant, soulless discount store — a man with no life of his own who lives through the images of his customers’ lives. Sy’s particular obsession is the Yorkin (your kin?) family, a seemingly perfect embodiment of the American Dream — perfect wife, perfect husband, perfect child, perfect House Beautiful home. Of course, that’s merely the surface. As Sy himself comments (and seems to have himself forgotten), “Nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget.” Family albums are not, after all, records of extramarital affairs, fights over money, growing disatisfaction with your mate, etc. Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins is not then with the Yorkins, but with the image of the Yorkins — the image they choose to present of themselves to themselves and their friends. This, more than the obsession itself, is Sy’s tragedy. He’s in love with a dream that he’s built on the strength of the family’s projected image. His is the tragedy of a man who wants nothing more than for someone to put his picture on their refrigerator — without realizing that such a thing would require actual human interaction and all the pitfalls that entails. As unbalanced as the seemingly meek Sy is from the onset, it’s only when this dream encounters a rift — losing his job — that he goes completely over the edge. Sy is a character whose world is held in place by the slenderest of threads. and the loss of his job — and attendant loss of his fantasy — is enough to shatter his world. These aspects of One Hour Photo are brilliant, not in the least because we recognize Sy — we all know people like him and we all have some part of him in ourselves. Unfortunately, when plot demands cause Romanek to push the film over into a kind of generic thriller, the movie falters. It might have worked on its own terms, but Romanek seems embarassed by the requirements of the thriller. He not only cheats the thrills, but finally makes the film too tricky for its own good. It’s less the fact that One Hour Photo never quite delivers the goods than that Romanek deliberately misleads the viewer on this point, suggesting a pay-off that isn’t forthcoming. It doesn’t come anywhere near sinking One Hour Photo, but it does manage to turn what started out as a great film into a very good, very flawed one.
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