Tales From The Dark Room

Creepy Robin Williams pushes the psychotic borders but develops a keepsake in 'One Hour Photo.'

August 30, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Robin Williams is so creepy in One Hour Photo, and first-time writer-director Mark Romanek does such a nice job of calibrating his film's squirm factor, it's possible to overlook some flaws that would sink a lesser film.

The truth is, there's a certain disconnectedness to the movie, a sense, even after it's all over, that we haven't been let in on everything. And there's a definite full-tilt loonie factor built into the ending, as Williams' character lets it all go in a rush of psychotic fury that's as off-putting as it is riveting. The rules of logic and progression are torn asunder, and not everyone may be willing to give the movie the necessary latitude. But do. The film deserves that much, and the rewards for cutting it a little slack are enormous.

Williams is Sy Parrish, a mousy little man who's devoted much of his adult life to the one-hour photo counter at Savmart. The job to him is everything, about the only thing in his life that's real.

Then again, how real is a job spent staring at other people's snapshots? As Sy himself admits, people don't photograph their real lives, only the moments and things they want to remember. An alien race that only knew humans through their snapshots, he reasons, would think we are happy all the time. And of course, that's not true.

Except in Sy's warped mind, it is true of one family, the Yorkins, whose photographs he has been developing for years. Unbeknown to them, beautiful mom Nina (Connie Nielsen) and all-American son Jake (Dylan Smith) have become his fantasy family.

It's a good thing they don't know it, because what that means would definitely freak them out. Sy's apartment walls are covered with copies of the family snapshots he has printed on the sly. In his fantasy world, he's become Uncle Sy.

Harmless enough, one supposes, although definitely creepy. But then the squirm factor gets ratcheted up several notches: The boss at Savmart (Gary Cole) starts complaining about Sy's job performance, threatening the only security Sy knows. And dad Yorkin, Will (Michael Vartan), turns out to have a moral compass not quite up to Sy's standards for "his" family.

This does not sit well with Sy, nor does it do much to keep stable his fragile psyche. Everyone in the theater knows Sy is going to lose it; the question is how, and who's going to get hurt?

Romanek, an acclaimed video and commercial director, presents Sy to us in stages; that he's wound too tightly is apparent from the start, that he's depraved becomes quickly obvious, that he's dangerous appears inevitable. But it's tough to get a handle on just where all this is going, so careful is Romanek to never let us see the full Sy until the last reel.

And Williams is simply tremendous, playing Sy close to the vest, never letting him devolve into the bug-eyed, hand-twitching maniac he might have become in lesser hands. With a posture that's a bit too ramrod-straight, and a manner suspiciously self-effacing, Sy is a cloudburst waiting to happen, and Williams has a grand time toying with us as we wait.

The supporting cast pays dividends as well. Nielsen's wicked beauty (she's most famous for having seduced Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate) works nicely against type; watching her portray a wholesome mom, it's hard to allay the suspicion something else is in play behind those eyes. Eight-year-old Smith is likable, but far from cloying, while Vartan's bland good looks work for him as a father who, in Sy's eyes at least, is little more than an afterthought. And Eriq La Salle (ER) turns out to be as intimidating a good cop as he was a good doctor.

Romanek makes a few missteps at the end, letting Sy go a little too far beyond the edge; some of his evil deeds seem not to come out of his demented soul, but rather out of Romanek's eagerness to thrill the audience. But the film ends on a sublime, graceful note that resonates long after the final credits.

One Hour Photo

Starring Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen

Written and directed by Mark Romanek

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rating R (Language, sexuality, nudity)

Time 98 minutes

Sun score: ***

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