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ONE HOUR PHOTO

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle
Director:  Mark Romanek
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20the Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  February 18, 2003

“If pictures have anything to say, it's this: I was here, I existed. I was young and happy and someone cared enough about me to take my picture.”

Film ****

I’ve rarely in my years of film criticism wanted to talk so much about a movie, yet felt obligated to say so little.  One Hour Photo is the kind of picture that demands it.  To do otherwise could rob the pleasure some might have in seeing it for the first time with fresh eyes.  For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, my advice is to see it quickly, and plunge right in.  Skip the trailer and extras until later.  And if you have a friend or a co-worker who wants to tell you about this film at the water cooler, politely excuse yourself from the conversation until after you’ve seen it yourself.  Then you’ll have plenty to talk about.

I have to begin by addressing the performance of Robin Williams, for which there simply aren’t enough suitable adjectives in the thesaurus.  He’s done some terrific work in the past, but here, for the first time, he completely disappears into the role of photo tech Sy Parrish.  Think of it as a payoff on the promise he made in Insomnia.  Sy Parrish is the absolute antithesis of Williams; whereas Williams is funny, energetic, and normally very external as an actor (using his face, body and voice to great effect), Sy is a completely internalized character.  He’s often still and quiet, and the camera lingers on his face for long moments contemplating the gears turning behind his eyeballs.

Sy is one of the lonely and forgotten men.  He runs the photo counter at SavMart, which looks like a bigger and more sterile version of one of those giant chain discount department stores we all know so well.  People drop off their film and leave, then come pick up and leave again.  Nobody gives the man doing the work a second thought…intriguing, considering they entrust their most precious memories, and sometimes most private occurrences to him.

Being an introverted loner, Sy tends to fantasize on the job…not about women, money, or power, but simply belonging.  His favorite family is the Yorkins, a seemingly perfect and happy suburban couple with a nice house and wonderful life.  He has developed their photos for 11 years, and even watched their son Jake as he grew up.  In a strange way, he loves and cares about them more than they could realize, or be comfortable with. 

But Sy himself admits at one point that a photo record is often an illusion.  “We only record the happy moments in our lives,” he muses.  But he doesn’t translate that to the Yorkins, who indeed have problems as bad or worse than any he could imagine.  Having his picture perfect image of them shattered?  Who knows what kind of results that could produce in a mind as fragile as his?

Sy walks a fine line between being creepy and being heartbreaking…he manages a good amount of both.  We spend a lot of time with him, and think about him more than any of the people in his own life, yet writer/director Mark Romanek constantly surprises us with his well timed revelations.  In other words, we never doubt that he’s a little unbalanced, but we’re occasionally dumbfounded in moments where we see just how deep the proverbial rabbit hole goes.

I’ve mentioned nothing of the storyline so far…and that’s where I want to keep it.  I don’t even want to hint at what happens and what it leads to.  As mentioned, this film kept surprising me around every corner.  I’d have to be some kind of Grinch to steal that away from other fresh movie goers.

So instead, I’ll end where I started:  Robin Williams is simply astounding in the best work of his long career.  It takes less than one minute from the time you first see him to completely forget about him.  Robin Williams does not show up in Sy.  And Sy is the most perfectly realized, complex, and difficult character he’s ever had to portray.  Everything about him is internalized.  In his mind, he aggressive, but in body, he’s passive…a tough combination.  And unlike Williams, who normally attracts all the attention in a room, Sy is almost invisible at times, with his clothes, freakish blond hair and mannerisms letting him almost absorb into his environment like a chameleon.  And a chameleon makes itself disappear only to lure in the unsuspecting.

Video ****

Stunning!  Given the main character’s obsession with perfect colors and images, I can easily imagine Sy Parrish himself lovingly pouring himself over this DVD transfer (I of course don’t mean to imply anything about the personalities of the individuals who DID oversee this presentation. ;-))  This is simple a colorful, vivid, and remarkably detailed offering that comes across well in any scheme, be it the harsh white lights of the SavMart, the monochromatic realms of Sy’s existence, or even the extreme displays that express the director’s imagination for his character.  This is one of the early year’s best offerings.

Audio ****

You may not expect much from the audio to a film based on a photo tech, but guess again…this is a tremendous 5.1 soundtrack.  The sounds are very important to this movie…a lot of times, simple ones like shutters clicking or flashbulbs popping are exaggerated and fill all corners of your living room, making Sy’s own little world seem larger than life.  It’s hard to describe, but you’ll appreciate it when you hear it.  Dialogue is well rendered throughout, and overall, the soundtrack is crisp, clean, and dynamic, with wonderful musical cues to boot.

Features ****

A terrific features package accompanies the film, starting with a terrific team commentary track by writer/director Mark Romanek and star Robin Williams.  It’s a very detailed and informative listen.  Williams makes a joke here and there, but ultimately, he’s still treating the material with respect and thoughtfulness.  I enjoyed it tremendously.

There are two featurettes:  a less detailed making-of one from Cinemax is outdone by the better Sundance Channel “Anatomy of a Scene” special…again, this is the kind of picture where you’ll appreciate the thoughts that went into it.  Rounding out is a trailer and TV spots that include this and other Fox releases.  The simple animated menu screens are also a nice touch.

Summary:

One Hour Photo is simply one of the best movies of the year highlighted by the greatest performance of Robin Williams’ career.  This is the kind of superbly crafted, character-driven thriller that we don’t get enough of these days.  Highest recommendation.