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'One Hour Photo'

Williams plays against type as the disturbed clerk

Friday, September 13, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

The moral is, be careful with your choice of Kodak moments -- and especially where you take them to be developed.

Otherwise, you may run into Seymour.

 
 
'ONE HOUR PHOTO'

RATING: R for mild violence and adult extramarital themes.

STARRING: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen.

DIRECTOR: Mark Romanek.

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He's the mild-mannered milquetoast (Robin Williams) in charge of the photo-developing counter at your local SavMart. He's no ordinary discount-drone clerk, but a true technician-artiste at what he does. "I consider this an important job," he intones internally. "The first thing people save when the house is on fire are the family photos."

Seymour takes a keen interest in certain customers, such as the Yorkins, and has been saving family photos himself -- theirs. He's a friendless bachelor, and the Yorkins are -- well, the picture of domestic bliss he'll never have: brilliant designer Will (Michael Vartan), beautiful wife Nina (Connie Nielsen) and soulful 8-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith). Why not duplicate and vicariously savor their perfect snapshot happiness, while ingratiating himself with them to become their "Uncle Sy" -- in his mind.

A harmless enough obsession. But Seymour sees more -- and identifies more -- than he should, turning this prosaic "One Hour Photo" outlet into a poetic 90-minute thriller, carefully written and ironically directed by Mark Romanek.

"Check your smile," says a sign over the mirror at work, but his nasty boss checks Seymour's numbers, too, and fires him for the hundreds of unaccounted-for prints. That does it for the harmless part of an edge-of-sanity fantasy.

The result is a typically fine -- no, uniquely fine -- Williams characterization: the well-modulated escalation of this sweetly creepy blond nonentity into, if not exactly a psychopath, its near-relation, a "photopath." Seymour's visual fetish is akin to Gene Hackman's aural one (and Romanek's direction akin to Coppola's) in "The Conversation": You grasp and battle the world with whatever dangerous tools of expertise you possess.

And you're as likely to win as lose.

Winners, in this case, include all four major members of the cast, but especially Williams, who looks like an eerily washed-out Buck Henry here, and whose performance is reminiscent -- technically, not philosophically -- of Rod Steiger's immortal "Pawnbroker." Williams is such an extraordinarily empathetic performer that, the more pathological he becomes, the more we root for him.

In its cinematography and editing, Romanek gives "One Hour Photo" touches of Kubrick's "Shining" and Fleischer's "Boston Strangler" -- sterile white clinical backdrops with which to contemplate Seymour's isolated guilt or innocence.

But guilt or innocence of what?

In the end, Romanek doesn't explicitly tell us, which may leave many viewers unsatisfied. That ambiguous ending -- as ambiguous as the ultimate crime and punishment of Seymour -- hinges on a final, ambiguous set of snapshots he takes.

What, exactly, do they reveal?

A clue to the answer -- and to the character of our nut case at hand -- is in his opening statement: "No one ever takes a photo of something they want to forget."

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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