One Hour Photo holds a strange and specific place in my movie-watching history. It came out when I was fourteen, and it was, to the best of my recollection, the first time I consciously appreciated any kind of film technique. I noticed the cinematography and production design here: the vast white commercial spaces that swallow up Robin Williams’s Sy the Photo Guy, emphasizing his loneliness and the sterility of his environment; the sharp whites and blues; the faux-Wal-Mart design that is so orderly it tips over into the surreal. In fact, you could argue that One Hour Photo overdoes it on this kind of thing–but its intense stylization helped make me a film geek, so I can’t really quibble with it.
The movie’s plot is on the slender side. Sy–in a job that, to younger audiences now, almost requires a kind of explanatory footnote–develops other people’s photos; he works at a big box store called Sav-Mart, the sort of brightly lit hellhole that makes Sy’s attempt to befriend his regular customers seem old-fashioned and out-of-place. (There’s a lot that’s wrong with Sy, but it’s almost touching how one of his “problems” is that he persists in believing his job has serious meaning when everyone else disagrees.) In particular, Sy likes the Yorkins, who have been bringing their family photos to him for years. He feels like he’s watched their son grow up. They mostly feel like … he’s the guy who develops their photos.
Sy immerses himself in the Yorkins’ lives, always making another print of their photos so he can tape them to the wall of his apartment. His fantasies are touchingly innocent–he just wants to be “Uncle Sy,” casually greeted by the family and able to help young Jake put one of his toys together. He wants to be part of an idealized family.
We know before he does that the Yorkins aren’t those people. In the scenes where we dip into their lives, they’re on-the-nose about not being those people, with Will Yorkin accusing his wife of driving them into debt by wanting it to look like they’re living in a magazine.
But eventually, Sy gets an unwanted dash of cold water. He develops photos for another customer–photos that showcase Will Yorkin’s affair with a coworker. Sy has been slowly separating himself from reality for the whole movie, and now he floats entirely free, becoming threatening in the only way he can: by taking pictures.
Williams plays the hell out of Sy, making him both pitiable and convincingly frightening: it’s not the best against-type work Williams ever did, partly because the role is just too limited for it, but it’s still pretty damn good. And the movie is spotted with good supporting actors: Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle, Clark Gregg, and Nick Searcy. The relatively unknown Paul H. Kim is also good as Yoshi, Sy’s assistant. There’s a lot of charisma bouncing around the set, and it almost feels like a meta-commentary that Sy gets so desperately obsessed with the attractive-but-bland Yorkins, who are safe not just because they’re a fantasy but because Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan–possibly deliberately–play them like they’re the dullest people on earth.
The biggest strength of One Hour Photo is related to Williams’s performance and the striking visuals: this is all just a little better, a little more deeply felt, and a little more complex than it needs to be. There are details that elevate it beyond a simple stalker drama, like the scene where Sy visits a flea market to buy a vintage photograph of a young woman he can pass off as his mother, tunneling deeper into a kind of childlike dream, or the stark reminders of the real world that come with Gary Cole’s intrusions as Sy’s manager, wanting to know why the hell Sy is giving away free cameras and taking two-hour lunch breaks. In its extremes of retreat and confrontation, unforgiving reality and soft-focus fantasy, One Hour Photo puts you in Sy’s head–and in at least this one area, it has a surprising delicacy.
One Hour Photo is streaming on HBO Max.