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Mark Romanek’s second feature is the third installment in the Robin Williams Trilogy of Terror, arty movies in which the comedian plays “edgy” to counter his 10-year run as the star of sentimental tripe. A failure as a revenge-minded kids’ TV host in Death to Smoochy, miscast as a suspicious crime novelist in Insomnia, Williams now plays an outright psycho. One Hour Photo makes it clear that for all the talk of Williams’ playing against type, these roles are really just the flip side of his more cuddlesome work. He drives his latest performance with the same motor: a soul-sucking yearning for pity. Stripped of his hairiness and bleached almost into oblivion in One Hour Photo’s tidily metaphorical color scheme, Williams’ friendless photo clerk Sy Parrish isn’t really a stretch from the do-gooding doctor in Patch Adams or the concentration-camp cheerleader in Jakob the Liar. He is, rather, those outsiderish roles curdled into a dark avatar.
Sy mans the photo desk at that recently popular Hollywood golem, the anonymous big-box store. Pale from head to toe, he lives his life as a negative image, from his sandy hair to his bone windbreaker to his cheap taupe shoes. Even his car is white and unremarkable, and the entry hall to his downtown apartment a spectacle of lividity. (Sy’s long ride to the outlying SavMart is a symbol of the intrusions of urban ugliness into the leafy beyond.) The only color in his world is the relentless warmth in the family photographs that Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) has been developing at the SavMart for a decade.
Sy lives through the family of his dreams: Nina, husband Will (Michael Vartan), and little Jake—or at least through the two-dimensional representation of this family. Though Romanek gives Sy a fantasy life that revolves around the Yorkins, the character is otherwise devoid of any interior spark. In his white-on-white world, he enjoys no sensual comforts—not food, sex, or even sleep. (He lies on a bed stiffly, staring up, fully clothed.) When he speaks privately, in voice-overs, it’s about the functions of photographs, how falsely but compellingly they document the trajectories of people’s lives from one high point to another. Otherwise, he is without observation, humor, or credible human connection.
Then again, so are the Yorkins. Predator and prey are made for each other, a point that Romanek’s claustrophobic mise-en-scene handles with masterful precision. The family is denied a single moment outside of the parameters Sy has constructed for them. When he cracks up and attacks them, it’s not because they lied to him with photographs of happy togetherness but because those photographs were the truth, as are the ones that prove they’re not worthy of happiness.
But it’s Romanek’s vision problem, not Sy’s, that puts the Yorkins on such limited display: All of the storytelling takes place through the use and lack of color. Romanek, a music-video director of uncommon artistry, knows where to put the camera and how to pace scenes to convey a sense of mounting horror. Sy’s apartment reveals itself in a quick, shocking striptease as the home of a true fruitcake. The tone is cold and still. We are completely in Sy’s world of white plates and fluorescent lights, which makes the fuzzy Yorkins glow by contrast.
Yet the movie is also riddled with inexcusable holes. The context of Sy’s voice-overs is unclear: At the beginning, a sympathetic cop (Eriq La Salle) asks why he attacked Will, and the bulk of the film is a flashback, but the narration doesn’t seem to be part of Sy’s explanation. Romanek even cheats on the pictures. Flea markets that sell photographs don’t have boxes full of baby, graduation, and wedding pictures of recent vintage; they’re shown, poignantly abandoned, so that Sy can narrate his thoughts. And who’s taking the photos that Sy so cherishes of the Yorkins at play on vacation or during family holidays? Or, for that matter, pointing the camera at a pair of unclothed, adulterous lovers whose photos are central to the plot?
But One Hour Photo is, of course, a parable, so its characters and incidents are allegorical. It pretends to be about real people with normal lives but is actually about Hollywood itself, a small, elitist community desperate to wall itself off from all it fears. And what it fears is folks who don’t know their place. The trespass committed against the Yorkins by the photo guy isn’t one of violence but one of intrusion. He wants their lives, just the way we little people covet J.Lo’s crib and claw off scraps of George Clooney’s shirt. Sy even gets a celebrity moment when he runs into Will in the electronics aisle. “Will Yorkin!” he exclaims, unable to tear himself away from a dreamed-of encounter. “In the flesh.” He dreams of inclusion, placing himself in their twinkly-lit Christmas morning holding up a just-opened sweater and imagining himself hanging with a beer as the family comes home with cries of “Hey, Uncle Sy.”
Just one aspect of the film’s bizarre worldview is the idea that what the Yorkins believe to be indicators of a safe, solid life—Sy’s very attentiveness, his good service, the fact that they’re residents of a pleasant suburbia where even the big-box clerks know their address—are really evidence of how precarious that life is. Sy is like a vampire they foolishly let in, through seemingly mundane actions: letting him see their photos, stopping for a friendly chat.
The film implies that these interactions would have no dire outcome if they took place only among people of the Yorkins’ ilk. Nina believes that having a pal at the SavMart is a good thing—which is her first big mistake. Like those home-invasion movies of the yuppie era, One Hour Photo is a cautionary tale for the cashmere-and-SUV set: Beware, upper-middle-class America, of the crushing need of the lowly, the clerks and service-sector drones who envy you. Give them an inch and they’ll take…your picture. CP