An odd little premise is developed in surprisingly effective ways in “One Hour Photo.” This immaculately made first feature from noted musicvid and commercials director Mark Romanek provides Robin Williams with one of his creepiest, atypical roles, and the comic star responds with an unusually restrained performance that is, in the end, quite moving. Supported by good reviews, Fox Searchlight should be able to cultivate a sizeable audience in broad specialized release for this offbeat but accessible picture.
His Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” notwithstanding, Williams’ occasional departures from his comic persona have not always been well received, and he is definitely working in a different gear as Sy Parrish, a blandly fastidious photo developer at the giant Savmart discount store. With pale skin and thinning cross-cropped blond hair, Sy almost blends in with the decor and bright lighting of the establishment, where he prides himself on the exacting standards of his work.
Among his favorite customers are the well-to-do Yorkins, who, to Sy, look like the ideal family: Nina (Connie Nielsen) is fashion-model gorgeous, Will (Michael Vartan) could be a movie or rock star and 9-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith) is a fine normal kid. Whenever they come in, Sy is solicitous to the edge of obsequiousness. But the weird nature of Sy’s attachment to the Yorkins is revealed when, after dining alone in a coffee shop, he returns to his forlorn little downtown apartment, an entire wall of which is covered with hundreds of pictures of Nina, Will and Jake through the years, copies of which Sy has surreptitiously printed at work.
Without any personal life of his own, Sy has become an emotional, rather than voyeuristic, peeping Tom, willing himself figuratively into the Yorkin family. In a fantasy, he makes himself at home in their house when they’re away, he visits Jake at soccer practice and offers the boy a present that Will won’t buy for him. His attentions, while excessive, never really seem threatening, although there is obviously such a degree of loneliness and apartness about the man that it wouldn’t be surprising if something unsavory were to one day come bubbling to the surface.
And so it does when Sy is abruptly fired from his beloved job. At nearly the story’s halfway mark, Sy is let go when his supervisor (Gary Cole) discovers the huge discrepancy between the number of photos paid for and actually printed. At the same time, Sy’s world is further shattered when photos left by a sexy customer suggest that she’s having an affair with Will. Deeply distressed that “his” perfect family has been poisoned, Sy gives copies of the photos to Nina and begins spying on Will, thus initiating an increasingly sick form of revenge on the man who he feels has thrown away the most precious thing in the world, the sort of happiness that proves unattainable for so many people, Sy included.
As curious a character as Sy is, and as misguided as his eventual actions become, the story is saved from slipping off into the simply macabre by its emotional validity. At the very end, however, too explicit a point is made for Sy’s deep-rooted psychological problems, as Romanek makes easy use of a pat explanation for aberrant behavior even as he leaves matters on an open note.
While remaining within a narrow expressive range as dictated by the circumscribed nature of his role, Williams keeps Sy interesting all the way and crucially resists playing for sympathy and sentimentality. Other significant cast members, including Nielsen, Vartan, Smith and Eriq La Salle as a police detective, are solid in an understated manner.
From a technical point of view, the film is nearly as fastidious as Sy himself. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s clean and crisp compositions, Tom Foden’s elegantly spare production design and Jeffrey Ford’s no-fat editing all function like precision instruments in helping Romanek create a pristine-looking picture, and the outstanding electronic score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek helps channel the various moods in subtle ways.