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Tuesday 12 August 2014

Robin Williams Shines Brightest in an Unusual Light - Review of "One Hour Photo"

Cover of "One Hour Photo (Widescreen Edit...
Cover of One Hour Photo (Widescreen Edition)
One Hour Photo” is a psychological thriller starring Robin Williams as Sy Parrish, a photo technician working at a large supermarket’s one hour photo developing clinic. Living a lonely and solitary life, the painfully shy Sy becomes obsessed with his regular customers, the Yorkin family (Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen and Dylan Smith), and fantasizes about being “Uncle Sy”…


With the death Robin Williams I was inspired to look back on this very original thriller, which immediately impressed me when it first came out on video. Rather than going the route of most psychological thrillers, which inevitably involve a lot of overt sexuality and vivid depictions of violence, this took a very different and more sympathetic approach.

Sy represents the alienation of individuals in modern society. The film’s ending provides us with a strong negative motivation for Sy’s desire to be a part of the perfect family, but the bigger picture is a story about how we often treat other members of our society. Sy’s narration discusses the false representation offered by photographs. The tragedies are rarely seen. Instead family albums of photographs are tapestries of smiling happy faces. Sy accepts this is not the true face, but he wants to believe in this utopia. The inspired set designs of the movie depict his workplace as a sterile and emotionless machine that affects a “heaven-like” hyper-reality and his home, where he keeps his shrine to the family he is stalking, is symbolic of Hell. Humans are naturally social creatures but Sy has no family or friends. Humans are driven to improve and be creative, but when Sy gets passionate about maintaining a certain standard in his workplace he is scalded and reminded about his position in the order.

Given the way digital and social media is today, the film hints at the horrors that lie in wait. Stalking is so prolific now the term has been partly accepted as normal behaviour. A world entertained by reality television has pushed the boundaries of privacy further than the most persistent of paparazzi photographers. However, Williams’ performance conveys the tragedy of the loner who is socially inept and longs for a sense of belonging. Between Sy’s collage of photographs and the false world of his workplace we can see a parallel with the interactive multimedia we use today. The sadness is not just that our society shuns loners like Sy and encourages them move in a dangerous direction, but that the enforced solitary activity of “social” networking with its pseudo-relationships and instant gratification might mean we might all end becoming like him.

The true genius behind “One Hour Photo” is, of course, Mark Romanek who wrote and directed the picture. Romanek took the “Taxi Driver” lonely man idea popular in 1970s films and delivered a far more sympathetic character in a brighter environment. Rather seeing the dirty, gritty and dingy world of the hard-boiled thrillers of this era we see a far less honest world of veneers and artificiality, masks hiding complicated feelings and emotions. The more overtly darker look was something that Romanek obviously played with when he originally booked Trent Reznor to do the soundtrack. Despite being a big fan of Reznor’s work, I definitely think the direction Romanek took paid off.

To many, the idea of Robin Williams playing a sinister part was a surprise. He had already played the role of an obsessive and murderous psychopath in “Insomnia” and his performance had not been very well received. He won a Golden Raspberry in the Worst Actor category for that year. It seemed to be a step too far for Williams. However, I would argue that “One Hour Photo” is perhaps Williams’ finest moment.

Much of the persona that audiences had come to expect of the actor was down to his success as the alien Mork in the “Happy Days” sit-com spin-off “Mork and Mindy”. Willaims established himself as a comedy actor and comedian. He became known for being this zany, fast-talking character that could do various funny voices and brought unrelenting energy to the screen. Despite handling many adult topics in his stand-up act and having little prudence regarding the use of foul language, there was something of the man-child in Williams. He could project a vulnerability that has made so many clowns loveable. “Good Morning Vietnam” opened up the possibilities for a deeper Williams. This was despite the fact that he had already shown a lot of promise in the 1982 comedy drama, “The World According to Garp”. Sadly, knowing the depression he suffered, he has fulfilled the cliché so many tragic comedians and comedy actors fallen into. Early reports on his death indicate that he might join Tony Hancock, Paul McCullough, Richard Jeni and possibly Kenneth Williams in that his depression led him to the ultimate conclusion of suicide. The obvious question remains how much of Williams’ pathos on the screen was connected to the depressive flipside of his otherwise jovial personality?

In “One Hour Photo” we see Williams possibly learning from the mistakes he made in “Insomnia” and balances the dangerous side of his character with tragic empathy. His role in "Insomnia" is unfairly criticized. Most dangerous psychopaths are really quite pathetic individuals, but perhaps Williams' performance in an already tiring movie just didn't pay off in the dramatic sense. Here we get a far more intelligent dark exploitation of Williams' accessible performances. I was not an easy convert to many of Williams' performances. He seemed to be hitting that annoying middle brow area of art that always included predictable sentimental scenes. His characters seemed to suffer from bipolar personalities and were prone to take drastic actions, often compromising the welfare of children. As some wry observers have put it, "Mrs Doubtfire" has an unintended disturbing message regarding obsession.

Strip away the romanticism of "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting", and are these characters really on the level? This picture brings together ideas from several of Williams characters and holds a more realistic mirror up to them. Sy can almost be seen as innocent, yet he is a stalker, a fantasist and an obsessive with the potential to be lethal. On the surface the film appears to be a psychological thriller that works off the cuckoo premise seen in “Fatal Attraction”, “Single White Female” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, but there is far more to the picture than this concept. It goes in a very different direction and a lot of that is down to Williams’ performance.