One Hour Photo continues Robin Williams’ excursions into playing roles against character. The lovable comic and sentimental hero of Mork & Mindy, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Will Hunting has switched gears into roles of aggressive psychopaths such as Rainbow Randolph in Death to Smoochy, crime novelist-murderer Walter Finch in Insomnia, and now creepy Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo. Williams is a consummate actor who can’t seem to find a script that will do more than showcase his talent. Here, with blond hair and large, rimless eyeglasses, he embodies the middle-aged store clerk.
Parrish works in the photo-processing department in a SavMart store in a suburban mall. He’s single and lives alone in an immaculately neat apartment downtown. Working at SavMart for eleven years he has gotten to know his customers; looking at their pictures provides him with a vicarious family life In particular, he’s latched on to the unknowing Yorkins–Will (Michael Vartan), a successful young entrepreneur, his wife Nina (Connie Nielsen), and their nine year old son, Jake. Parrish has covered a wall of his apartment with duplicates of all their photos. He fantasizes himself in their house, as "Uncle Sy." He gives a gift to Jake. When he notices that Nina is reading Deepak Chopra’s The Path to Love, he gets the same book and makes a point of reading it at lunch at the mall where she is sure to notice.
Writer/director Mark Romanek creates the atmosphere of a thriller with creepy music behind the main titles. He then shows Parrish being interrogated by the police, so it is known up front that he has committed a crime and it is implied that what he did was pretty awful. The film then flashes back and tells the story in a straightforward, chronological fashion. So the question is not Whodunnit?, but what did he do and why?
The story is fully focused on Parrish; he’s on screen practically the entire time. In voiceovers, he makes observations and expresses opinions that start to reveal the nature of his personality. Some of these observations are, appropriately, about the nature of photographs. He says, for example, "Nobody photographs what they want to forget" and he recognizes the snapshot as an assertion of identity by the subject: "I was here! I existed! Someone cared enough about me to take my picture!"
Parrish himself is a mixture of stifled ego and neurotic aggressiveness. He projects qualities of meekness and is obsequious with the Yorkins and others, but he displays assertiveness when his controlled little world seems in any way threatened. Gradually, a portrait of a repressed, anally-retentive obsessive compulsive is revealed. When he chances to learn disturbing news about Will Yorkin, it pushes his buttons and he moves beyond his previously harmless practices.
Romanek doesn’t deliver the thriller he promised. The exposition is long and the unfolding of events is slow. There’s an overall sense of threat in the air as Parrish’s degree of derangement is exposed bit by bit, but aside from one short (and superfluous) nightmare sequence, there’s no real horror; the alternating progression of adrenaline-pumping buildups and pauses that create the thrills in thrillers are missing here. It’s a straightaway at 35 miles an hour instead of a roller coaster ride at 90.
So if it isn’t going to work as a thriller, then the film must succeed as character study. While Parrish is richly developed through the gradual series of revelations, it’s all on one note. There aren’t any real surprises. And he’s the only character that is developed. Romanek only discloses about the Yorkins what is necessary for his plotting;they are never more than Everyman suburbanites.
The problem with a film about a loner is that there aren’t any interesting relationships to provide complications. Romanek, while coming up with a literate script and a striking visual style, doesn’t provide enough layering, enough complications to make the film more than marginally interesting on an intellectual level. Lacking that and lacking the thrills, One Hour Photo is more like an underexposed snapshot.