One Hour Photo

dir: Mark Romanek
[img_assist|nid=1031|title=And what can I see in these missing frames from the Zapruder movie? Nixon doing what?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=353|height=500]
Robin Williams was, to use the official psychiatric term, a complete loon. He was a complete loon for a long time. Anyone who's ever seen one of his coke fuelled stand-up performances from the 80s (such as Live at the Met from 1986), or seen anyone try to interview him on any type of show knows how much of a complete nutjob he was (and probably still is). The man used to have a chaotic level of energy when 'on' that it meant even he didn't know what was going to come out of his manic mouth next. You've never seen someone cram more free associations, impressions, parodies and downright crippling gags in such a short space of time. Of course by delivering twenty gags in the space of fifteen seconds even when ten leave you scratching your unmentionables the other five kept you giggling like a schoolgirl.

Those days of coke binges and having sex with Christy Canyon (I'm not making that up) are long gone, but the mania certainly remains. Even now you'd be hard pressed to find a better example of a person with extreme bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression back in the old days.

Conversely, the most curious fact relating to his dubious 'talents' is that he has been far more compelling in dramatic roles than he ever has been in comedies. Don't believe me? Well, who remembers Jack fondly, or Father's Day, Flubber, Jumanji, Nine Months, Toys? Who pops Mrs Doubtfire in the DVD player any more? Without recourse to strong anti-psychotic medication?

Of course not all of his dramatic performances have worked either. He has however put in some very good work in roles that allow him some leeway but essentially control and focus his maniacal energies. Honestly, Awakenings, Dead Poet's Society, What Dreams May Come, Good
Will Hunting
even as far back as The World According to Garp, it is his dramatic roles that he has excelled at (again not without some failures, with Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar being particularly dire examples).

In 2002 Williams managed to play three distinct psychopaths in three different films. In the Christopher Nolan Insomnia remake he held his own against Al Pacino, where they both thankfully avoided chewing any of the precious Alaskan scenery. He played a somewhat bland, calm, organised loon which is a credit to himself and to director Christopher Nolan for being able to accurately shoot him with tranquilliser darts in order to get some good work out of him.

In Death to Smoochy he played a character we're more at home with, more of the manic hyperactivity that is his trademark, with somewhat lesser effect. Which resulted in a pretty dull film.

In arguably the best of those three performances and the more compelling film out of the three Robin Williams perfectly grasps the nuances of an oddball character who is definitely a loon, but a far more complex one than we've come to expect.

Despite having a micro budget compared to the other three, One Hour Photo remains one of the most interesting character studies of 2002, and as assayed by Williams one of the best performances of last year. It's not a showy role, barely anyone went to see the film, and it has a decidedly offbeat tone and subject matter, but the film's minor level adherence to formulaic staples is completely offset by some of the more original aspects of the story.

It's not a brilliant or complex plot, but it is somewhat different. If anything this film would belong in the deceptively titled 'psychological thriller' category which is what they used to call films that had psychopaths in them which weren't related to organised crime.

Williams plays Sy Parrish, an aging man child who works at the One Hour photo place at a suburban mall. His appearance is neat, he is dedicated to quality service, he is incredibly polite to his customers, and he loves, absolutely loves his job. With a setup like that you'd be sure that the next line is "But he is a serial killer". Writer / Director Mark Romanek takes a far more interesting approach to his character and his story.

The film uses the idea of photography, the temporal aspects thereof, and the meaning it has for us, the importance we place on these frozen fragments of time. Sy, a no life motherfucker, lives for these snapshots. He also has an elaborate fantasy life, a deep yearning for connection that he satisfies through these photographs.

As Sy is completely alone, and lives a life surrounded by white, sterile, flat surfaces, both at work and at home, the only colour in his life comes from the photos he develops for other people. And of course there are the photos he develops with extra love and care for one particular family: the Yorkins.

The Yorkins represent an ideal yuppie existence which Sy is utterly besotted with. His fixation does not come from a desire for sex, or respectability, or wealth. He doesn't see himself as the wish-fulfilment potential new head of the family; his 'love' for the family is the desire to be connected, to be loved, to have a connection with people which he completely lacks in life. His greatest fantasy is not to fuck the wife, Nina Yorkin, or anyone else in the family, but to be Uncle Sy. Levels of obsession this complete are generally depicted as being sexual in nature. Of course that may be true in this instance as well.

We get the impression that he has been fixated on them for many years. We don't know why this particular family. Perhaps it was a random event, perhaps there was something specifically 'perfect' about the young couple that appealed to him. All we know is that Sy has an entire wall of his shitty apartment covered in thousands of photos of the couple and their child Jacob.

At the same time that Sy's safe constructed world starts falling apart, he finds out that his image of the Yorkins as being utterly perfect is just a facade. Sy decides it's time to play a more active role in their lives.

The film creates a creepy atmosphere, not over the top, but the minimalism of the set design and the inspired use of a minimalist ambient score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek helps maintain an offbeat feel for the film's duration.

Everyone apart from Sy is treated fairly superficially. The Yorkins are an idealised construction, and as such didn't live as characters for me but more as plot devices. They're just a yuppie family living in the burbs, who are not really given enough time to develop as characters. But maybe that's not entirely necessary, after all it is Sy's film.

Williams dominates the film in such an amazing way. He essentially plays a submissive control freak who manages to not overact at any point until the unfortunate end, where the film suffers from over-explanation disease, even though it's debatable whether the information imparted to the audience is really necessary to understand the film or Sy. Williams amazingly subverts our own expectations, putting in a vastly more controlled performance than I thought was ever possible.

The ending as well is interesting in the way that it subverts expectation. I'm not saying that I entirely understand the ending, or like it, but it surprised me in that I expected it to be cathartic in an entirely different way.

Ultimately it's a low budget film with modest objectives. It's a well constructed film, reminding me of such other films as The Minus Man, a keen low-key gem from a few years ago with Owen Wilson. These are somewhat uncomfortable films but nonetheless utterly compelling explorations of the worlds that some very strange people live in.

7 percent blue shift out of 10

"All I did was take pictures... " - One Hour Photo