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One Hour Photo Print E-mail
Tuesday, 18 February 2003

One Hour Photo

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Dylan Smith, Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle, Paul Hansen Kim, Erin Daniels
release year: 2002
film rating: Four and a half stars
sound/picture: Three stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

"One Hour Photo" is an impressive film, both for the directorial & writer debut of Mark Romanek (from rock videos), and for Robin Williams' near-perfect performance as a quiet, repressed one-hour photo clerk. Furthermore, for the first time, Williams, with Romanek, provides a commentary track for one of his movies -- and he's subdued, non-comic throughout the interesting, low-key track.

On that track, and in a lively, and very comic, episode of "The Charlie Rose Show" -- here Williams is largely unbridled, and hilarious -- Romanek says that among his inspirations for the film were Coppola's "The Conversation" and Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." The resemblances are clear: a guy who goes through life hardly being noticed by those around him reaches a crisis point.

Here, Williams is Sy Parrish, a longtime employee of the SavMart discount store, where he runs their one-hour photo department. He's a skilled technician, taking great care to see that his customers receive the best photo he can print, given his circumstances. But he's also developed a fixation on the Yorkin family which, in their family photos, seem nearly idyllic to lonely Sy. Nina (Connie Nelsen) frequently brings in film rolls of her husband Will (Michael Vartan) and their young son Jake (Dylan Smith). We see that Sy actually prints an extra set of their photos for himself -- and later, we see the eyepopping result of what he's done with all these pictures. But he fails to take note of his own comment: people take pictures of happy times, they don't shoot snapshots of bad times. Unknown to the idealizing Sy, the Yorkin family isn't really so happy in their private moments.

The entire film is narrated by Sy, who at the beginning is escorted into an interrogation room by soft-spoken police detective Van Der Zee (Eriq La Salle). We return to the interrogation room at the end, where we hear something about Sy's background that might -- and might not -- go a long way toward explaining his behavior.

Sy is a quiet, even mousy man, who dresses in unobtrusive colors (that go with the decor of the SavMart), has no friends, and leads a very restricted life. He goes home, he goes to work. And that's about it. Except for his obsession with the Yorkin family, which enters a new phase during the course of the movie. He tries to get closer to Nina and Jake, but is a little nervous when he meets Will for the first time. (A beautifully staged and played scene.) Then he learns something that makes him increasingly angry, and he takes steps.

Occasionally during the film, we see Sy's little fantasies of moving directly into the Yorkins' lives (he imagines himself as "Uncle Sy"), but this fantasy life is no haven at all. Romanek occasionally fools us with one of these, which works well in the building of suspense.

The neatest trick of the film is that we never entirely lose sympathy for Sy, not even when he steals a big knife from the store and heads out into the world. Sy is a sad case; his skill with the photo-printing machine is really all he has. No friends, no hobbies, no nothin' other than work He rarely even takes photos himself. (And there's a brilliant bit at the end when we see the photos he finally does take; they're devoid of humanity, of color.)

People applauded Robin Williams for his "daring" in taking on the role of Sy the Photo Guy. However, while his performance is excellent -- one of the best of movie-rich 2002 -- it wasn't truly daring. It was a small-scale film, and no risk to anyone. Playing a bastard in "Death to Smoochy" was a bigger risk for him, but partly because of his excellent performance in "One Hour Photo" (and his good one in "Insomnia"), "Smoochy" ultimate did him no damage. He realized that the wider the range of roles he attempts, the wider the range he CAN attempt. His career has seemingly reached an interesting new direction.

"One Hour Photo" is low-key but builds up a great deal of suspense. It is one of the few thrillers in which you really cannot predict the next big turn of events, and Romanek plays out the suspense quite deftly until very nearly the end of the film. It's also rich enough, with enough subtleties, that it very much deserves and rewards extra viewings, making this an ideal DVD purchase.

The sound is above average for a relatively low budget movie; in the commentary track, we learn just how much attention they devoted to it in a discussion of Sy's squeaky shoes. Of course he's the hapless-nerd type to HAVE squeaky shoes, but it's rewarding to learn that such careful attention was paid to the film -- which took over a year to edit to Romanek's satisfaction.

This unusual, engrossing and even scary movie is very much worth catching up with or reinvestigating on DVD.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital stereo
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed 1:1.85
special features: documentary, commentary track, TV features, etc.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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