The small, unusual new movie One Hour Photo provides its star, Robin Williams, who's awfully busy these days, with yet another opportunity to play against type, personality, and history. At virtually the same time that his one-man Broadway show, which consists of his patented brand of wildly improvisational stand-up comedy, plays on HBO; and very soon after his supporting role as Al Pacino's nemesis, the psychopathic killer of Insomnia; he now plays another offbeat and decidedly non-comic part. This time, however, he consciously reverses both the somber sincerity and sugary sweetness of such "serious" roles as the title character in Patch Adams, the psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting, and the physician in What Dreams May Come (notice that he's developing a nice sideline in medicine), strait-jacketing his manic stage personality and smothering his instincts for the saccharine and the weepy.
In One Hour Photo, Williams plays Sy Parrish, the technician at the photo counter of a discount department store named Savmart. Savmart is quite similar to the Retail Rodeo of The Good Girl, minus the drabness, the eccentric clerks, and the ironic tone. The set --- which, as in that movie, contributes significantly to atmosphere and meaning --- appears, despite the familiar abundance of products, vacant and sterile. It's as bright and clean as an operating room, only sparsely populated with customers and sales personnel. Savmart's false cheeriness reflects the repression of any real feeling, the essential emotional emptiness, the sanitized neutrality of contemporary life within and without the store. When Sy quarrels with a supplier, his boss tells him that if people wanted to hear arguments, they'd stay at home.
The set also appropriately, and obviously, expresses a good deal of Sy's personality and behavior, the sort of life he leads. He spends his days working at the Savmart, obsessively concerned with the quality and condition of the photographs he develops and reproduces. He's fascinated by their images of a life he cannot share --- vacations, children's birthdays, happy families. The rest of the time, we see him alone, eating by himself in some nameless diner or in his apartment (itself as featureless and empty as the store), riding in his car. We mostly see him simply sitting, looking blankly at the life around him.
Sy's special obsession involves a particular family, the Yorkins, whose pictures he's been developing for so many years that he feels he not only knows them well, but in some way believes he belongs with them. He envies and admires the close, loving relationship between the wife and husband, Nina and Will. He has witnessed, through their pictures, the growth from infancy of their nine-year-old son, Jake. He fantasizes that he is a part of the family, perhaps Jake's favorite uncle. He handles their film with special care, observes Jake's birthday with the gift of a disposable camera, and most important, keeps an additional copy of all their pictures for himself. The one striking decoration in his home is a wall plastered with innumerable photographs of the Yorkins over the years he has known them.
Throughout the movie, Sy tries to articulate a theory of photography, especially of the family snapshot variety. He reiterates the perception that a picture represents a chunk of time, an attempt to freeze a moment forever, so that one can look at a photo in order to return to a particular time and place and, for a moment, recapture a permanently frozen piece of the past. For him, of course, photographs also provide a remote and solitary connection with normal family life, another layer of vicariousness for a lonely man isolated from the people, actions, and emotions that constitute the everyday life.
Perhaps the oddest quality of Sy's special brand of voyeurism is that no matter how creepy it seems, it apparently lacks any sexual component. He desires not sexual fulfillment, but some sense of participation in what he regards as an ordinary, happy family in a pleasant home. When he discovers --- through photographs, naturally --- that the Yorkins' life actually suffers from the kinds of tensions and problems that constitute a more familiar normality than his own fantasy, he snaps, acting out with a threat of significant violence, and employing his own photography as a tool for violation.
The tight control of the setting, the narrow confinements of the action, the limited cast, the generally low-key tone, and the central character and subject all mesh seamlessly in One Hour Photo --- for which the writer-director, Mark Romanek, deserves a good deal of credit. The rest of the credit belongs to Williams, who turns in a most competent performance. He maintains a consistent minimalism of expression and gesture, speaks in a soft, prissy manner, compressing his lips into a narrow seam. Smiling meaninglessly and affectlessly at the world around him, he conveys the weird pathos of this lonely man. When he finally explodes, the pathos turns a bit too suddenly into the old Robin Williams self pity, and the picture simultaneously compresses too much and too easily into its neat package. But Williams bears the burden of action and meaning within himself, and carries it off with considerable skill.
One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Erin Daniels, Clark Gregg, Nick Searcy, Dylan Smith, Eriq La Salle; written and directed by Mark Romanek. The Little; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.