Credible actors want to avoid stereotyping, so it should come as no surprise that
cuddly Robin Williams would play a man so slimy that his handshake
would immediately compel you to rush to the restroom to wash up. The
actor, famous for his goofy “Mork from Ork” and tearjerking Dead Poet's Society/What Dreams May Come/Patch Adams persona, immerses himself in an obsessive stalker role in One Hour Photo.
Although Williams' acting transmutation may well be calculated, given his previous two films (Death to Smoochy and Insomnia) very deliberately show a darker nature, his transformation into creepy Sy Parrish has far more staying power than his Oscar™-winning Good Will Hunting role. Should Williams fail to gain a nomination this time around, it will be more due to the independent nature of One Hour Photo than to his remarkably intense portrayal—a portrait so real that it doesn't feel like he's acting. Director Mark Romanek wisely revolves the movie around his star, and Williams delivers the best performance of his career. If this role had come earlier in Williams' career, he might have developed long list of creepy psycho acting gigs over the years.
Middle-aged bachelor Sy has worked as SavMart's photo developer for over twenty years. Despite the minimum wage nature of his job, he takes pride in his work and meticulously tends to detail. Tweaking the photo lab equipment towards perfection, at one point he battles the service technician over a miniscule +3 blue tint. He also humorously points out the quirks of his customers—from the lady who takes pictures only of her cats to the new father with an overload of baby pictures to the uneasy young man with the soft porn shots. Sy knows a great deal about SavMart shoppers, just as poet Edgar Lee Masters' small town laundress knew all the dirty secrets of Spoon River at the turn of the previous century.
Sy takes a strange interest in the Yorkin family. He adopts them as his ideal happy family and plunges headlong into all-too-real daydreams that he is Uncle Sy to their nine year old son Jake (Dylan Smith). He sees the mother Nina (Connie Nielsen) regularly at the store as she drops off the family photos, but Sy goes far beyond “normal” fantasies about unrequited relationships—and it doesn't appear these are sexual in nature. Ever since the Yorkins first started developing their family photos at SavMart, Sy has saved a duplicate print for himself, passing them off as his relatives when asked by the family restaurant waitress and pasting them into a huge collage on the large wall in his otherwise barren apartment.
These photos give him comfort that all is right with his lonely world. The only other significant items in his apartment emphasize his routine existence—the small television set and the hamster that spends its day running around its exercise wheel and eating.
All is relatively fine in Sy's well-ordered universe until it inevitably unravels. After all, how long can Sy's job with high school co-workers last in a digital camera world? When Sy's job is yanked and when Sy discovers that the Yorkin family is not as perfect as he thought, his repressed feelings begin to implode. This is when One Hour Photo takes off, building a great deal of suspense with some expert editing, juxtaposition, and pacing. Unfortunately, the denouement parallels a contestant on Let's Make a Deal, filled with anticipation over winning a new car or Bahamas vacation, only to pick the door to the booby prize.
Despite the weakness of the pedestrian storyline, the film rewards the audience with Williams' nuanced creepy transmutation and some well integrated set designs. The whiteness of SavMart brings Kubrickian nihilistic shadings without the more global themes, but still matches Sy's personality. Similarly, his plain clothing very much matches his bland existence, and his uncluttered apartment greatly contrasts with the colorful red, blue, and green hues of the Yorkin home and messiness of Jake's toy infested room that all remind Sy of the idealized vision he's painted of the family through their snapshots.
This 95-minute film won't haunt you with intellectual ideas, but Robin Williams' character study single-handedly makes One Hour Photo memorable. If you've retched at Williams' goody two-shoes saccharine roles or been bitterly disappointed with his previous experiments to tour the dark side, this film shows that he can slither into the blacks and grays of the psyche while retaining the audience.