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[whitespace] 'One Hour Photo'
Photograph by Francois Duhamel

Photo Phobia: Robin Williams creeps out customer Connie Nielsen in 'One Hour Photo.'

Psycho Patch

He made your skin crawl in 'Patch Adams'--now get ready for real terror from Robin Williams!

By Richard von Busack

AMERICA'S FUNNIEST Home Videos will never receive the acclaim it deserves. Doesn't AFHV represent the end of Hollywood cinema, as prayed for by film theorists? No stars, no studios, no directors, just real life--unscripted and unglamorized to the max. But one interesting recent snippet cut against the show's usual commitment to Dogmesquity.

Two parents decided to prank their children. Since the kids had watched horror films all night, they were too frightened to turn the lights off. Now, they were asleep in their clothes, with the blankets pulled over the head. The parents crept up the stairs, describing the situation to the camera in whispers, getting the scene ready. Then Mom and Dad fired up a huge, deafening chain saw and videotaped their children, startled awake by an attack from Leatherface himself.

Now, if they had dropped an iguana on the bed, instead of revving up a chain saw? Of course! Life copies art once again. These cruel-joke parents had unconsciously restaged the famous scene from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, a 1960 movie usually referred to as the British version of Psycho.

And in One Hour Photo, so very indebted to Peeping Tom, we see the same popular story played out. Here's another child-man permanently damaged by the lens of the camera. Unfortunately, the subtext of One Hour Photo isn't quite so rich as Powell's film, though it stands on its own as a memorable portrait of a creep.

Robin Williams plays Sy Parrish, "Sy the photo guy," a lifer at the photo counter at SavMart. He's a monochromatic ghost in beige clothes, Velcro shoes and $99 eyeglasses. SavMart resembles Target--only more alienating.

Sy lives a vicarious existence through the photographs the Yorkin family brings in to be developed. With hoarded snapshots, Sy worships husband Will (Michael Vartan), wife Nina (Connie Nielsen) and son Jakob (Dylan Smith). In his fantasies, Sy serves as their kind old uncle. When Sy becomes too friendly and too obsessed with the Yorkins, he loses his job and devotes himself full time to following the family.

Mark Romanek, a music-video grad, wrote and directed One Hour Photo. As usual with filmmakers from that trade, he has a firm hand for mood and clever ideas, yet he's not always clear on cause and effect. We're told that the Yorkins are the perfect family, but they don't look bland enough. Vartan is strangely cool and young for the part of the daddy of Sy's fantasies. Nielsen, who was very forceful in Gladiator, comes across as correct and cold, a little posh. (Wouldn't Sy's ideal family be more like Redbook than the Ikea catalogue?) Moreover, you don't see what it is in Jakob's personality that attracts Sy; after an early flash of sensitivity, Jakob sort of fades into the woodwork.

Finally, in the second half, Williams unwisely decides to turn on the tears. He should have held them back: Sy is far more heartbreaking when lost in his thoughts, loitering in the depressing SavMart break room, with the motto "Check Your Smile" laminated over a mirror.

One Hour Photo has a sharp supporting cast. Sy's supervisor is played by Gary Cole, who co-starred as the repellent boss in Office Space. Eriq La Salle is formidable as the cop who figures out the key to Sy's "scopophilia" (to use a word only seen in commentaries on Peeping Tom). The officer teases out the film's punch line in a police custody room, no less overlit or alienating then the store where Sy has spent 11 years.

The finale is a little more vicious than most viewers are going to want, if you prefer an elegant chill to actual knife wielding. And the film isn't thorough enough at implicating moviegoers for our habit of nosing into strangers' lives via a movie screen. Still, the undertone of voyeur's guilt shows a bit, and Williams frightens you with it.

Ultimately, Sy becomes a figure of great pain and pathos. Despite Williams' taste for mawkish movies, there has always been a real actor in him. Few saw how good he was in the 1996 film version of Conrad's The Secret Agent, where he played a terrorist, a man who carried a bomb around with him at all times. Moments in One Hour Photo recall those scenes in which Williams' character forces his way through a London crowd, a snarl of rage choked back, barely restraining himself from blowing them all to hell.

Those last minutes in The Secret Agent couldn't make the movie--and yet Williams was indelible. Still, at a basic level, any movie is only as good as its last five minutes. The ending of One Hour Photo seems as reactionary as that of Fatal Attraction; it presumes--wrongly--that we care more for the Yorkin's marriage than we do for this one madman's life. However, Williams' performance deliberately shows us the other side of comedy, accidentally displayed in the actor's worst movies. The other side of comedy isn't tragedy; its the comedian's bottomless, agonized yearning for approval--and his fury when he's denied.

One Hour Photo (R; 98 min.), directed by written by Mark Romanek, photographed by Jeff Cronenweth and starring Robin Williams and Michael Vartan, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and selected theaters.

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From the August 29-September 4, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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