Go Digital or Die

'One Hour Photo' takes an ugly snapshot of the retail employee

Nothing separates the haves from the have-nots like new technology. In the current comedy Lovely & Amazing, the clearest sign of the Catherine Keener character's downward mobility in an age of digital cameras and Photoshop software is her employment at--good heavens--a one-hour photo store. As Hollywood's lust for instantaneous distribution threatens to turn 35mm film into a relic, who wants to bet that the mad slashers of meta-

thrillers in the all-digital era won't be out-of-work negative cutters and disgruntled union projectionists?

In the meantime, we have One Hour Photo's aptly named Seymour Parrish (Robin Williams), an eagle-eyed but mortally outdated customer-care specialist in the photo department of the Savmart discount store. We know Sy is a tad too invested in the old magic when he complains to the local AGFA tech about a "plus-three blue shift" in the processing machinery. Sy's obsessive concern for his customers--which extends well beyond their own satisfaction with the standard three-by-fives and four-by-sixes--seems a bit extreme in the case of the Yorkins, Nina (Connie Nielsen) and Will (Michael Vartan), whose soccer son Jake (Dylan Smith) has just turned nine. For some reason these well-off, even fashionable young folks haven't yet switched to digital (the best explanation is that there'd be no movie), and regularly pull their Mercedes SUV into the Savmart lot to drop off their latest rolls with "Sy the photo guy." Maybe, following some retro Norman Rockwell impulse, Nina is charmed by Sy's evident fondness for young Jake. Still, when the Savmart employee reaches across the counter to muss the cute kid's hair and call him "buddy," it's clear there's something wrong with this picture.

Scarier than Patch Adams? Robin Williams in 'One Hour Photo'
Fox Searchlight
Scarier than Patch Adams? Robin Williams in 'One Hour Photo'

In the press kit, music-video visionary-turned-writer-director Mark Romanek immodestly situates One Hour Photo among the "'lonely-man' films of the '70s": The Tenant (lonely man cleans house), Taxi Driver (lonely man cleans scum off streets), The Passenger (lonely man trades places with dead man), The Conversation (lonely man hears tell of murder). Certainly Williams's near-masochistically introverted star turn echoes those films' cris de coeur, the actor burying every emotion behind an albino exterior that blends in eerily with Savmart's fluorescent-lit white-on-white décor. (Williams thinned his hair and dyed it blonde for the part.) Nevertheless, Romanek's initially sterile, eventually sordid movie more resembles a rarified variant of the nanny-stalks-yuppies shocker The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Call it The Finger That Smudges the Photo.

Even before Romanek's put-upon protagonist has resorted to bringing a hunting knife home from work (yikes!), the film's sympathy for its lonely man stops shy of identification. Sy, whose careful routine involves eating dinner by himself in a coffee shop, at one point fantasizes that he's an adopted member of the Yorkin clan: Walking into their tastefully furnished house uninvited, "Uncle Sy" cracks open a beer, puts his feet up, and enjoys a ballgame until they come home and greet him with picture-perfect smiles. (His dream is the family's nightmare.) But the more indelibly subjective sequence in One Hour Photo--and it's a doozy--finds Nina and Jake sending Sy their "good thoughts" at bedtime, whereupon Romanek cuts to a shot of the clerk in his cramped apartment suddenly tilting his head like a puppy hearing a high-pitched sound. Has the Yorkins' goodness reached out and touched this poor man from the warm safety of their privilege? Or is the photo guy--who keeps a creepy collage of the family's memories taped to his wall--merely a projection of their upper-middle-class guilt?

Whatever the case, One Hour Photo doesn't exactly come off as a movie for beleaguered discount-store employees. For one thing, it's being distributed through Fox's boutique division as a specialty item straight from Sundance. (Attention, Restoration Hardware shoppers.) True, Williams took a salary cut to play a working stiff in a modestly scaled project--a way of lending a little Method to his madness, perhaps. (Or maybe it's just the latest trend in psychologically tough times: One Hour Photo debuted at Sundance in a year that also saw Matt Damon slacking his way through the arid indie desert of Gerry, and Jennifer Aniston stooping to stock her own Savmart in The Good Girl.) But while the most manic A-lister this side of Jim Carrey clearly relishes swinging to the other pole here--his slightly hunched slope through the wide aisles capturing a clock puncher's profound humility in the face of commerce--the photo guy never develops far beyond what the Yorkins (or we?) might have imagined. In the interests of preserving "suspense," Romanek keeps Sy a cipher up until the final scene, whose didactic diagnosis rivals the smug shrink's explanation of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho--but with none of the Master's wit.


Speaking of routine analysis, the most obvious thing one could say about Romanek--and it wouldn't be much off the mark--is that his background in creating ingenious music-video set pieces has failed to nurture any talent he may possess for defining character. I mean, after convincing Madonna to wear her hair short in the "Rain" clip, what's left to define? Taken together, Romanek's videos (two of which are in the MoMA's permanent collection) make up one flamboyantly conflicted musical. Like One Hour Photo, but with far more flair, they vacillate between heightened renderings of heaven and hell while musing on how little it takes to tweak a star's image.

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