One Hour Photo
Written and directed by Mark Romanek

Starring Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen


One Hour Photo

"One Hour Photo," which might also be titled "Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," is Robin Williams' third essay this year into the world of a psychotic killer: "Death to Smoochy" had the virtue of being a comedy, though an almost fatally flawed one; "Insomnia" gave his character room to act with foresight and careful planning. "One Hour Photo" takes us in a very different direction. Williams is Seymour 'Sy' Parrish, who runs the one-hour photo lab at the Savmart - a kind of WalMart - in a generic upscale suburbia.

Sy has no life; he lives alone in a walkup some distance away, downtown. He eats alone in family restaurants. He has only a recliner and a television set and a bed by way of furnishings in his apartment, except that he has covered one whole wall with photos of a family that brings their snapshots in for processing. The family, Nina and Will Yorkin (Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan), is somehow his ideal; he wishes with all his heart to belong to them. They are rich, beautiful, have an elegant house and a charming little boy, Jake (Dylan Smith). In the course of the film Sy's fantasy will take over his life.

He begins to stalk the family. He watches Jake's soccer practice; he parks on the street outside their home; he contrives to share a lunch with Nina at the mall's food court. But the family turns out not to meet his dream: Will is having an affair with another woman who also brings her photos in for processing, and her photos feature the two of them together. Sy takes this as a message, a kind of order to deliver divine retribution in some psychotic hope of restoring his dream.

The film was written and directed by Mark Romanek, who has made music videos for Nine Inch Nails and Madonna; this is his first feature, which is both good and bad for the film. It is good in that he gets the cultural essentials of a big-box store just right, with its endless maze-like aisles, its ultra-clean aesthetic, and its manager's window over the sales floor. He has drained it of the conventional decorator retail colors we're accustomed to seeing at Target and WalMart, and instead replaced them with an antiseptic off-white, accented with light greys and blues. It is a screamingly clean version of contemporary America.

But he has only sketched in his people; he doesn't give the Yorkins room to breathe, to live at normal speed while the tensions build. Romanek seems to see them just as Sy does, as though through the copies he secretly makes of their snapshots. Only Nielsen brings us hints of the underlying tensions, and the dialogue she's been given is pedestrian.

As far as Williams' performance goes, I am of two minds. Is this a celebrity turn, something we watch because Robin Williams is stretching himself? Or is he a true character actor, creating a screen persona here that has the depth required to hold the fim together? I think Williams is a very good actor, who does well as Sy; he is consistent in his voice, his manner - his slightly stiff, tight-assed walk down the aisles is a thoughtful way of presenting this pathologically inhibited man - and his monochromatic life. But he also has been let down by Romanek's script. It is a caricature, a surface sketch, and not a human being. Romanek makes an attempt at the end to give us a past history for Sy, but it is almost laughably clichéd. The French do this kind of thing much better, perhaps because they better recognize the messiness of life. Romanek should watch more films before he tries this again.