More Than One Focus
Here's an interesting concept: make a movie that examines people's obsessions with taking personal pictures. I'll wager not many viewers of One Hour Photo have thought much about that subject before seeing this film. And, honestly, why should they? Taking pictures is a relatively harmless and fun activity, but has anyone really pondered why we do it, or, more profoundly, if there's any point to doing it at all?
Does One Hour Photo straightforwardly addresses this query? Well, kind of. The protagonist of the movie is Sy Parrish, played to creepy satisfaction by Robin Williams. At times, his voice-over expounds on the process of taking photographs, breaking it down from its purpose of preserving memories to the mechanics of actually handling the film and transferring those memories onto something tangible. For instance, Sy wistfully relates how people take pictures of happy moments at the exclusion of sad ones. During these points in the film, the follies and futilities of this pastime become inherent -- as well as interesting to mull over.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn't focus (pun not intended) solely on this theme, opting to give it equal screen time with Williams' portrayal of an unexceptional stalker character. Sy just happens to be one of those guys who works at a WalMart -- er, SavMart, in the movie -- behind the counter of its one-hour photo stand. He's been doing it for years, and in that time he has gotten to know one particular married couple and their young son through the photos he develops for them. Their family is this lonely man's ideal -- they seem like the perfect family, but only because all he ever sees of them is what they show in their beaming family photos.
And while Williams gives a performance that, frankly, blows his other version of a weirdo in Insomnia out of the water, the character himself feels like "Travis Bickle Lite." Robert De Niro's memorable alienated psycho in Taxi Driver was driven by a deluded, self-created sense of justice, and he wanted to play hero to the mean streets of New York. But, though we could see where he was coming from, we couldn't easily side with him without compromising our own morality. In One Hour Photo, Sy Parrish, like Travis Bickle, emerges as socially awkward while the movie's atmosphere magnifies his loneliness. He, too, wants to play hero by exposing an injustice being done to the family he so vigilantly monitors and admires. He also is compelled to take matters into his own hands. But the movie attempts to evoke too much sympathy for the character, despite his inherent creepiness. The ending effectively torpedoes any guilt we might have in feeling sorry for the guy.
Still, perhaps this is another part of the movie's message. Maybe we're so accustomed to unsympathetic, deranged movie characters we fool ourselves into believing Sy is just another version of such an individual. After all, exposing the ways we fool ourselves is One Hour Photo's real strength -- exemplified in such moments as when Sy suggests to the audience that people take pictures to prove they existed -- as a kind of bid towards immortality.
While watching Sy go through old photos at some street merchant's stand, I observed an irony (and I still wonder whether or not it was intentional) as he picks out one photo to illustrate how people hope pictures will verify "I was here." The one he chooses is a yearbook-type prom headshot of a smiling young woman. And I thought to myself, well, how funny, this woman may be immortalized -- but her identity is most likely lost forever.
(Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.)
From Fox Searchlight and rated "R" for sexual content and language. After limited release in August, One Hour Photo opens nationwide on Sept. 13.