Suitable taglines... "In just one hour, a life can change." No, too normal. "It only takes an hour for someone to know your life." No, too blasť'. "A photograph can be a dream to the lonely." Hmm... too sad. Try as I might, I cannot synopsize "One Hour Photo" into a pat little catch-phrase. It is too intense, too complex, too riddled with conflicting emotions to be stated so simply and emotionlessly. It is the finest performance I've seen from Robin Williams to date (and I've seen every film he's done), and it defies simplistic description.
Sy Parrish works at SavMart (a very ineffective filmic disguise for what is obviously supposed to be the dreaded Wal*Mart) in the One-Hour Photo processing lab. He is good at what he does, like an artist who knows his paints and his canvas so well that even on his off days, his product is better than most at their best. His life is his work, and he becomes a tiny bastion of small-town recognition and friendliness amidst the cold, lifeless, anonymous shelves of the corporate American mega-store. He knows his customers, he remembers their names, their faces, their birthdays... in short, he's too good to be true. Unfortunately, although he isn't... he really is. He begins to watch one family's life through the photographs they bring in, and begins to project himself into their life, to share in the warmth and love he perceives coming through the pictures. Unfortunately, when he discovers that his illusion of their life is just that, it is not only his illusion that begins to unravel, but his own sense of self as well.
Robin Williams plays Sy, who is so complex a character that it is difficult to talk about him as just one person. Sy is a loveable person. You like him. He is earnest, he is caring, he is a grown, intelligent innocent, who believes in the images he sees in people's pictures, while realizing that they only take photographs of the good times in their lives. Just like you can know something logically but fail to let go of what it disproves emotionally, so Sy falls in love with the family he sees in the pictures he develops for the Yorkins.
Will (Michael Vartan) and Nina (Connie Nielsen) Yorkin are your typical suburban couple, with the nice house, the two cars, and the one child. But that child, Jakob (Dylan Smith) is much more in-touch with the rest of the world than his parents, and senses that, beneath the chipper if clipped exterior and honest attempts to reach out, Sy is lonely. How lonely becomes evident throughout the film, and becomes an almost heartbreaking revelation by the end.
These four characters make up the nucleus of the film's story. Small, supporting roles are played by Gary Cole and Eriq La Salle, but they are ancillary characters at best, antagonists to Sy at different points, and protagonists for the Yorkins. The fact that so many people are seen in a secondary point-of-view, yet the film stays with only four characters, makes the film seem intimate without depriving the characters within it from seeming a part of the larger world around them.
The eye of the camera is especially interesting in this production, showing us the entire film from Sy's perspective. Even when we see only scenes with the Yorkins, it feels like we're watching them as Sy would, with compassionate, tender eyes that only want to see the best in them while refusing to acknowledge what actually "is". The lighting is especially notable in that, through it, we are tipped off as to when the film subtly changes gears. Harsh, primary colors along with small symbolic hints let us know where the film is going, when its moving on, and where it truly ends up.
Written and directed by Mark Romanek, this film is a mix of love, suspense, an unsettling "creepy" feeling, and a sincere compassion. Even at the end, when you think you know what Sy has done, you find you understand, and hope not only that he's done it, but that he gets away with it. For a filmmaker to evoke such compassion, such support, such empathy for a character as flawed as Sy turns out to be is nothing short of miraculous, but Romanek does it with style, aplomb, and a very subtle touch. We do not realize how much we have grown to like Sy until things start to occur that would make us emotional retreat from any character we weren't already attached to. But with Sy, we just keep hoping, keep feeling with him, and keep watching, horrified, as things spin out of control.
This film gets an A+ from me, and I'm almost certain it will get Robin Williams yet another Academy Award nomination. If it doesn't, well... I'll be very disappointed yet again in the Academy. This is a film you must see. It is more moving, and Sy more endearing, than anything you'll find in any big Hollywood mass-produced extravaganza forthcoming or already released this year. I doubt it will be around long, so see this film while you have the chance.