- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

After a disgraceful 2002 start in "Death to Smoochy," a flop farce that brandished him as a crazed and degenerate TV personality, Robin Williams has done an impressive job of salvaging his year of being sinister.

He got to lurk in the background of Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" before emerging expertly as the treacherous psychopath who finds it expedient to blackmail homicide cop Al Pacino.

Now Mr. Williams, in plain but deliberately colorless sight from the outset, polishes off a character study of a mild-mannered, nondescript psycho in "One Hour Photo," a carefully wrought suspense thriller that may err on the side of impeccable stylization.

Writer-director Mark Romanek succeeds at a form of ominous miniaturization that blends exceptional atmospheric precision with a methodical heightening of apprehension, but his control is sometimes conspicuous to a fault. It's as if he were emphasizing design at the expense of genuine misgiving and pity for a victim of character disintegration.

Mr. Williams is often at his most persuasive when simulating predatory personalities and at his least believable when simulating dear hearts. The shadowy role in "Insomnia" allowed him to reprise certain aspects of a stunning but almost completely unknown performance as the seething nihilist of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" in a 1996 movie version adapted and directed by Christopher Hampton.

Sy Parrish, the forlorn protagonist of "One Hour Photo," is a lonely fixture in the photo department of a huge discount store called SavMart. He suggests a cross between a vintage lovelorn spinster and Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."

Anxious to be ingratiating and revealed to us only in his professional setting during most of the film, Sy would appear to be an efficient, affable presence at the store.

At one point, he confides to a character that he would like to be known as Uncle Sy, and his lot might have been happier if that identity had been endorsed gladly somewhere in the past by both management and customers.

Although Mr. Romanek is stingy about depicting Sy's rather empty life beyond the workplace, we discover before long that emotional gratification seems to depend on secondhand or purloined associations.

Specifically, Sy has been nurturing a crush on a particular family of steady customers: the young and attractive Yorkins, consisting of wife Nina (Connie Nielsen), husband Will (Michael Vartan) and little boy Jake (Dylan Smith). Sy's fond recollections seem to go back as far as Nina's pregnancy a decade earlier.

Ultimately, Mr. Romanek unveils a memory display that illustrates the magnitude of Sy's exaggerated, furtive attachment. One brilliantly contrived and deceptive sequence also suggests that there's an alarming presumption of entitlement in the way Sy imagines the Yorkins and takes consolation in delusions of kinship and familiarity.

Elaborating this delusion might be scary and/or pathetic enough without literal elements of menace. However, melodramas need to drive characters to desperation, so the circumstances in "One Hour Photo" conspire to undermine Sy's livelihood and his fancies simultaneously.

A store manager played by Gary Cole (in an effective straight variation on his farcically suspicious and hostile boss in "Office Space") can barely conceal his desire to get rid of Sy, and the opportunity falls into his lap.

Sy also discovers that his idyllic view of the Yorkin marriage has been naive. On the way out, he engineers reprisals against the boss and a faithless Yorkin, obliging the targets to seek police protection as quickly as possible.

One of Mr. Romanek's clever brainstorms is to make Sy's threats so perverse and distinctively crackpot that it's difficult to predict how drastic they might prove.

I think audiences will have reason to be grateful that Sy's reign of terror doesn't rival Travis Bickle's in the last analysis, but the sheer nastiness of Sy's vindictive imagination seems adequate to the crisis. Sy acts out uglier self-righteous schemes, uglier rituals of entrapment and humiliation, than Travis might have been capable of imagining.

The movie leaves room for doubt about its own priorities because compassion for either Sy or the Yorkins seems to place a clear second to the orchestration of undercurrents and overtones.

For example, the eerie neatness and fluorescent sheen within the SavMart may tell us more about Sy's state of mind than the place where he's employed. It's more like a spacious sensory-deprivation chamber, possibly envisioned for outer space by Stanley Kubrick, than a typical department store.

While it's difficult to find fault with the execution of any particular scene in "One Hour Photo," the range of social and psychological curiosity is on the barely ample side. Mr. Romanek is a promising, skillful filmmaker, and he gets a seemingly flawless performance from Mr. Williams on this occasion. Something in me wants to hear Sy explain himself in more detail when he's isolated with Eriq La Salle as a police officer, for example.

Sy Parrish's torments and fantasies probably need to do a lot more spilling out. They seem to fit much too comfortably inside a spotless cinematic display case.


TITLE: "One Hour Photo"

RATING: R (Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional sexual candor,

nudity and violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Mark Romanek.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes


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