Robin Williams, one of the great comic improvisers in the movies, has been exploring his darker sides in his 2002 films. He played an evil clown in "Death to Smoochy" and a suave serial killer in "Insomnia," and now digs into touchier areas -- loneliness, alienation, incipient violence -- in writer-director Mark Romanek's chillingly flat and enigmatic "One Hour Photo."
It's a kind of anti-thriller about the loneliness and desolation of the everyday, a psychological suspense movie that works best when it ignores the usual suspense-movie conventions and just focuses on people and their traps -- and best of all, when it focuses on Williams. Playing photo-shop manager Seymour Parrish (or "Sy the Photo Guy"), Williams has a dark-side role as a gentle bachelor/geek with a pained smile, fragile demeanor and meek, pasty-faced look of a chronic outsider.
Sy works in a little corner of a huge, impersonal chain department store called SavMart, and he tells his story in a police interrogation room to officer Van Der Zee (Eriq La Salle). Trapped in his mundane, dead-end job and lonely life -- represented by both his bare-looking apartment and the SavMart, which is ruled over by bullying, cold-eyed manager Bill Owens (Gary Cole) -- he seems desperately to want entry into another world. He wants access to that bright, pretty domain of happy suburban families that he keeps exposing in the rolls of film he develops, especially for one customer with whom he has become obsessed: cheery, tall and lovely Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen). Nina is the light of Sy's empty life. She keeps coming to the shop with her 8-year-old son Jake (Dylan Smith) to drop off home snapshots of her family, unaware that Sy has constructed a huge shrine of her pictures in his apartment.
Writer-director Romanek takes us into Sy's world with no filters and no apologies. An extremely gifted rock-video auteur (Michael and Janet Jackson's "Scream") with one other film to his credit (the wistful 1985 fantasy "Static"), Romanek sets most of the first half of "One Hour Photo" in Sy's domain and in his mind. It's a sad life and a sorry spectacle. Sy obviously adores Nina, but in a way he has a crush on the whole family, including Nina's brash, pretty-boy husband Will (Michael Vartan), who so resembles Sy's sadist boss that they might be two sides of the same character.
Suddenly, with the inevitability of a nightmare, Sy's world begins falling apart. He discovers, in a batch of photos from another customer, that Will has been cheating on Nina. Concurrently, Sy's boss catches him in a deception that gets him fired. (He's been developing extra copies of Nina's photos, keeping them for his shrine and fudging records to cover it.) Turned out of his sterile but comfortable niche, infuriated at Will's deception and Bill's sadism, Sy cracks, becoming a sort of stalker with a camera and hunting knife. He starts hunting his two tormentors, both such unlikable jerks that we may sympathize at first. But how crazy, or dangerous, is he?
It's the kind of role you don't expect from Williams, the mercurial master of free-association comedy and the sometimes-sappy comic lead of movies like "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Bicentennial Man" and "Patch Adams." Williams is a man of constantly shifting masks and moods, but he lets himself get swallowed up in Sy, with his thinning blond hair, spaniel geniality, desperate kindness and obsessive voyeurism. He creates a truly memorable character, as sympathetic as he is scary, as vulnerable as he is menacing.
For its first half, "One Hour Photo" is an utterly absorbing film, full of constant tension and laceratingly clear images of a dull, heartless and all-too-real world. Sy is lost in a world of photo images, incongruously sharp and shiny reflections of a dull world. Romanek is very adept at manipulating those images. He's also a photo and film buff who drops little allusions around, naming Van Der Zee after a noted art photographer and pitching "One Hour Photo" deliberately in the dark paranoid key of '70s psychological thrillers like Coppola's "The Conversation," with Gene Hackman as a lonely surveillance bugger, and "Taxi Driver," with Robert De Niro as a lonely, latently violent cabbie.
I don't think "One Hour Photo" is as good when it turns Sy into a stalker as it is when it's setting up the hurts and humiliations that drive him to hatred and revenge. In the last part of the picture, it's hard to accept what Sy does (or what the police and the other characters do in response) as anything but a fantasy or a cliche suspense movie somehow intruding on an often extraordinary character study of a disintegrating life.
When Romanek springs the movie's last shot -- an enigmatic and startling image that reverses much of what we've seen until then -- it partly redeems the shallowness of that whole last section. But only partly. "One Hour Photo" is a piece of often masterly image-making, a half-brilliant film with a revelatory lead performance by Williams. But it's also a thriller that gets trapped in surfaces: shiny, exciting, full of dread but often only tricks of the camera.
3 stars (out of 4)
"One Hour Photo"
Directed and written by Mark Romanek; photographed by Jeff Cronenweth; edited by Jeffrey Ford; production designed by Tom Foden; music by Reinhold Heil Jr., Johnny Klimek; produced by Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Stan Wlodkowski. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, Aug. 23. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: R (sexual content and language).
Seymour "Sy" Parrish -- Robin Williams
Nina Yorkin -- Connie Nielsen
Will Yorkin -- Michael Vartan
Bill Owens -- Gary Cole
Jake Yorkin -- Dylan Smith Detective Van Der Zee -- Eriq La Salle
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times