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One Hour Photo (Mark Romanek) 2002


    In the opening moments of music video director Mark Romanek’s second feature One Hour Photo, the conveniently named Sy (Robin Williams, who seems more desperate than ever here to make us all forget Patch Adams), a psychotic photo developer whose point of view becomes the film’s, delivers the first of his faux-profound voiceovers. He solemnly pontificates, “No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget,” and the film expects us to swoon at his insight. As he babbles on about the wisdom he’s gathered while processing the photos of strangers, we wait for a revelation to come, but none ever does. He complains that people never take photographs of ugly things either, but the first frames of the film show us Sy as he’s having his mug shot taken. Irony is obviously lost on him. The observations of this dim, sick man aren’t terribly compelling, much less disturbing, by any standard, and even once he begins to terrorize an average suburban American family, it’s tough to rouse any interest at all, since the film quickly becomes a sadistic, but boring, exercise in style.


    One Hour Photo is the sort of film where a kid can immediately sense the disturbances that lurk under the placid exterior that Sy projects, then immediately befriends him anyhow. It’s also the kind of film that thinks it’s being profound when it counterbalances Sy’s stalking by showing domestic disputes and chop-socky violent videogames present in the home that he’s terrorizing, as if the Sy’s behavior is somehow equivalent to them. Sy is presented for most of the running time as a monster who haunts people only because he doesn’t have enough love in his life, but it’s precisely because he’s presented as a monster, instead of a depraved human being, that his actions seem to exist solely in the world of the film, as opposed to being something that strikes the audience as disturbing because it could just as easily exist in the real world. For all the times that we hear Sy narrate his interior monologue, we never get enough of a bearing on where he’s coming from that we can understand his point of view. When in one sequence, he fantasizes about breaking into the home of the family that he’s obsessing over and using their toilet, it’s anyone’s guess if the audience is expected to laugh at him or recoil because of his dream’s total invasion of the family’s privacy. A last minute attempt to humanize Sy makes the generally reviled oversimplification at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho look subtle by comparison, and makes Sy so irreducibly-non threatening that you leave the theater much in the same condition as when you came in.


    Nearly all of the tonal inconsistencies that exist in One Hour Photo seem to be miscalculations by the overly self-impressed director. Although the film’s early scenes show us an overeager Sy, who seems to possess just a bit too much Wal-Mart cheer, the cinematic language being employed screams out to us that he’s a villain. There’s no mistaking his evil intent, so the coyness of the first half of the film, which slowly hints at it, seems utterly unnecessary. Romanek’s aesthetic is undoubtedly more suitable in a music video, where the power of his images need to only hold the viewer’s attention momentarily. In a feature-length psychological thriller, his style is inadequate. The emotional weight that his visuals carry lasts only exactly as long as those visuals appear on screen. The momentary blast of titillation that they pack never lingers, and as a result there’s little momentum built as the film continues along on its obvious trajectory and Sy’s sickness worsens. The attempts of the film to paint a more down-to-earth portrait of a psychopath seem to run counter to the style used by Romanek. Everything about the world that the film inhabits seems so preprogrammed that even the snapshots that a boy takes with a disposable camera have a great sense of color. Nothing feels real for a moment since the movie is so doggedly formalistic. You sense there’s an emotional core here that could possibly disturb you, especially since the invasion of privacy that the film addresses is a genuine concern in this day and age, but that core is surrounded by an exterior that’s so inappropriately attractive that it’s impossible to take the film seriously. At least when David Fincher made his equally vapid Seven he used his style to inflate his frivolous story to operatic, exaggerated proportions. If in this generally lousy genre Seven rates as opera, then One Hour Photo must rank somewhere between elevator music and white noise. Hardly what you’d expect from the director of some great music videos…


* 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman