Out of Time

One Hour Photo left me wondering. Have I just seen a very good film that my American homogenized sensibilities have a hard time appreciating? Or is there something missing in this portrayal of a lonely photo-tech.

There's a lot of buzz about Robin Williams' performance as Sy, and I don't disagree with the general sentiment that the character is believable and Williams does an excellent job inhabiting his skin. There may be a lot of poor roles he has taken (Jakob the Liar, Patch Adams, etc), but Williams' efforts to stretch out as an actor is bearing fruit here. While I'm sure there will be further missteps in his career, I'm glad to see the chances that he is taking.

The story takes a backseat in favor of a character study. The film pretends to be a thriller, but we spend a lot of time in Sy's head. He has a preoccupation with a family - the Yorkins - whome he has watched through the pictures they develop for many years. He's kept his own copies of the prints they develop, and imagines himself as one of them.

One Hour Photo is another example of this month's odd streak of films that are told within a flashback with voiceover narration. This case works better than most - I'd even say the voiceover was a good idea. The style of the film and the skewed, almost poetic, words of explanation from Sy, serve to reinforce the mood, and provide some details of character we'd otherwise miss. Without the voiceover, the flashback is largely pointless. I think we could have lived without it, but it's not a bad choice here (as opposed to a number of the other films I've seen recently).

If this were just a character piece, I'd be happy with it. We get a very good idea of Sy's antiseptic world. Through most of the film, there is a strict dichotomy of shots that show Sy's life as strictly regimented, sterile, and that other people live in a lush, emotional, responsive world that Sy can only dream of. The film is very successful at pulling this off. The problem is the continual intimations that this is going to be a thriller - while the two forms can live together, in this case they conflict and undermine each other.

If you still plan to see the film, you may want to skip the spoilers in this review. Otherwise, keep reading.

The plot proceeds largely on going deeper into Sy's character, with occasional feints of disturbing behavior to keep the suspense level up. Sy prints an extra set of prints for himself of the Yorkins. He walks into their house when it's empty - but it turns out to be a dream. He adds more pictures to his wall of Yorkins. He tries to give the Yorkin kid an action figure. We are left with the impression he's a lonely guy that comes off as creepy. Is he dangerous? The movie keeps telling us he is. And then in the last act, when he finds out Will Yorkin has been cheating on his wife - and is let go from his job - he flips out. His actions from this point are, in terms of the script, for two purposes - first, to explore the character some more, but also to justify the bits of suspense fed to us along the way.

Where the film goes wrong is in distracting us from the character. It tries to make us feel a threat to the Yorkins. That threat never quite feels real - at least not the way they're intimating - and when they try to cash in on it, we just don't quite believe.

So, in fact, it's not a problem that I've been affected too much by the barrage of American movies having limited artistic value (here's hoping that statement doesn't seem too full of vanity). It's really a problem of the movie trying to pander to that particular audience. They came close, though, close enough I don't think too many changes would be necessary to get around this issue. I just feel we cheat the character exploration by so blatantly going for the thriller angle.

Another perspective here would be that my problem with the film wouldn't exist if we hadn't been subjected to the overzealous films of the last twenty years. If someone had made One Hour Photo in the 1940s, it would be hailed as a masterpiece of psychological suspense now. But times change, and some understanding of where we are in the history of film must be present in a new film, or else the audience will be thrown off.

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