The problem with stand-out, spotlight performances is that everyone else sequesters into the shadows. While Robin Williams doesn’t so much steal the show as he is the main attraction in “One Hour Photo,” so much emphasis is placed into making his loner photo clerk complex and enigmatic that everyone else is as thin as glossy photo paper.
Williams plays Seymour Parrish, better known as Sy the Photo Guy by the positively nuclear Yorkin family. He’s hinted to be a descendant of abuse, his only social interactions the 10-words worth of discussion with customers and some wait staff at an unremarkable diner. But Sy has taken a shine to the Yorkins, increasingly obsessed with their seeming perfectness after developing their photos across the years. Why the Yorkins vs. any other family that gets their film developed at Sy’s store isn’t explicitly stated. But it’s implied that this family, in all their upper middle class, small-sized SUV-driving existence, represents something Sy yearned for but was always denied.
Of course, Sy isn’t seeing the real picture of life in the Yorkin household after they leave his store. Nina (Connie Nielsen) is distant from her husband Will (Michael Vartan), accusing him of being a neglectful father and husband, and that’s even before she realizes what he’s really been up to. Their son Jakob (Dylan Smith) is curious and friendly, empathetic about Sy’s loneliness. But the trio feels like a carbon cut out of early 2000s family archetypes. They have no personalities, where we can’t even think of one or two adjectives to describe Nina or Will. Sy doesn’t see that, having copied and compiled an obsessive collection of the family’s smiling photos that hangs on his wall.
Sy is a enthralling and perplexing character, a raw performance from Robin Williams that explores his deeper demons. There’s also perennial “that guy” actor Gary Cole who plays the trademark, no bullshit retail boss Bill Owens. And Mark Romanek’s sleek, fearless direction helps keep us intrigued when the story threatens to be a bore.
It’s a remarkable film, and one that certainly would not work in our time. Sy would probably be shuttered back to the stock room of his store in the wake of the digital and iPhone camera revolution, spending his nights obsessively refreshing the Yorkin family’s Facebook and Instagram pages than copying their 4×6 prints. In that sense, “One Hour Photo” is much more satisfying in its current state, the cinematic equivalent to those who prefer paperbacks instead of e-readers. It’s a story of obsession, but also the means of physical media that enable that state of mind. As evidenced by our selfie culture, Sy was a tad premature in his proclamation that “nobody takes a photo of something they don’t want to remember.” This movie, for its compelling direction and one brilliant performance, still remains very much alive even after film continues to vanish.