When Robin Williams was America's favorite funnyman in films like Mrs. Doubtfire, it always felt a little strange admitting that the guy seemed kinda creepy. When he "got serious" in irritating tearjerkers such as Hook and What Dreams May Come, it was certainly in vogue to proclaim him annoying, but few people seemed to admit that there was a potentially scary vibe to him in many of those roles. Maybe it was the knowledge that he was clearly repressing his natural hyperactive self, or that weird little grin he would get on his face right before the tears would flow, but in such parts, he came across less as benevolently bereaved and more as a potential psychopath, his vaguely repressive meekness resembling that of the archetypal serial killer who, neighbors later recall, seemed like such a nice, normal guy. When, oh when, would someone else see this potential in him and finally cast him as the creep he was born to play?
Well, it's finally done, and as photo developer Seymour "Sy" Parrish in One Hour Photo, Robin Williams just may have found the greatest role of his career. Playing beautifully to both fans and haters, Williams's Sy is a character you don't know whether to hug or go vigilante on his ass, a balance Bob Hoskins couldn't quite capture in Felicia's Journey. The name "Seymour" may be a bit too obvious -- it was also the name of Steve Buscemi's less dangerous, equally pathetic character in Ghost World -- but that's almost a moot point, since he goes by Sy. Sy's the sort of guy you see every day and seldom think twice about -- the middle-aged man working minimum-wage customer-service jobs alongside high school kids, a man who has not only resigned himself to such a life, but even maintains an inner monologue in which he convinces himself of the great and essential service he's doing the world, in this case by developing its photos. At least until everyone switches to digital cameras.
As anyone who's ever worked in a similar job knows, there's lots of downtime in which to gossip, daydream and generally talk about what great things you could otherwise do. In Sy's case, that involves imagining himself as a member of the Yorkin (read: "your kin") family, whose matriarch, Nina (Mission to Mars and Gladiator's Connie Nielsen, finally in a good movie), regularly drops off their family snapshots. There doesn't appear to be anything sexual about Sy's fixation, except perhaps on the most sublimated of levels. He merely wants to be perceived as "Uncle Sy" to Nina's son Jake (newcomer Dylan Smith).
Nothing too unusual there: Many families refer to their extended circle of friends as uncles and aunts. Only Sy's a little too friendly. Follow-you-home-when-you're-not-looking kind of friendly. Obsessive, too: Since the Yorkins first started developing photos at the SavMart, Sy's been saving duplicate prints for himself, which he pastes into a giant collage on a large, otherwise empty wall in his apartment. So when the family threatens to reveal itself to him as not so perfect, something's going to give, and the pent-up repression so apparent in Williams's face might just explode.
The movie's all Williams's show, as are most movies he stars in, but director Mark Romanek, best known for the Nine Inch Nails "Closer" video, makes the sets the star as well, from the antiseptic SavMart to Sy's empty apartment (way too large to be affordable on a discount-store salary, but you roll with it because it's symbolic of his empty life). Romanek even manages to get perhaps the creepiest shot ever of someone ascending an escalator, though due credit should also go to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (also of Fight Club, a movie as grungy as this one is sterile), and composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, who've scored all of Tom Tykwer's films. In an age of bombastic symphonic scores, theirs is modern and freaky, yet unobtrusive.
For those disappointed with Williams's other psycho turns this year, in the cluttered Death to Smoochy and low-payoff Insomnia, fear not: This is the one to see. Some may be disappointed in the film's ambiguous ending, but the more you think about it, the less of a cheat it feels. One Hour Photo may be too "indie" to earn Williams another Oscar, but his ill will hunting should stick with you much longer than anything in that old Matt Damon movie.
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