(R) 3 stars Finally, a movie where Robin Williams" performance is actually supposed to make your skin crawl. In One Hour Photo, a psychological thriller that builds and sustains a creepy tension despite being overly obvious, Williams plays a photo shop employee who becomes obsessed with one of the families that uses his services.
One Hour Photo is the third successive film (Death to Smoochy and Insomnia are the other two) in which Williams plays a dark, disturbing character. It"s part of a plan by the actor/comedian to regain the status he once had as a cutting-edge performer. While he retains a huge fan base, many people - including writers like me - came to dismiss him as one of the most annoying hams in Hollywood following his star turns in a series of manipulative, schmaltzy films like Bicentennial Man and Patch Adams. You would think that Williams would simply play to his fans and blow off the rest of us, but this guy needs to be loved by everyone. So what are the results of Williams" turn to the dark side of the farce? In Death to Smoochy, he was purely obnoxious: screaming, quivering, dancing and leering at the camera as luridly as he could manage. He was only onscreen for a few minutes in Insomnia, but used that time to create a credible villain. In One Hour Photo, Williams plays Sy Parrish, a late middle-age fellow manning the developing machines and the counter of the photo department in a Savmart mega-store. Tidy, polite and bland, he is one of those people that you encounter during your daily travels, but never think about. Sy thinks about his customers, though. In particular, he thinks a great deal about the Yorkins, a family so attractive, so wholesome, so American that they look like they were clipped out of a Sears catalogue. To Sy, Nina (Connie Nielsen), Will (Michael Vartan) and their 9-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith) are the personification of the perfect family. In his mind, Sy is a member of this perfect family, a benign figure overlooking their beatific lives. After work, he follows them sometimes, or watches them from a distance. At home in his little apartment, he has filled an entire wall with hundreds of photos of the threesome over the years, copies he made on the sly at work. Still, Sy seems relatively harmless, gently trying to find a place in the hearts of the Yorkins when they stop by the store and resigning himself to gazing from afar the rest of the time. Filtered through his lonely, obsessed eyes, all is well, until two things happen nearly at the same time. Sy gets called to the office of his supervisor (Gary Cole), who announces that there is a huge discrepancy between the number of photos paid for and the number printed on the machines. Careful monitoring has convinced the supervisor that Sy is responsible for the shortages and as a result, he is letting Sy go at the end of the week. The stricken worker goes back to his department, only to discover photos indicating that one of the Yorkins is betraying the rest of the family. Horrified, Sy decides that he must take action to preserve the integrity of "his" family. Pretty juicy set-up, eh? For the most part, One Hour Photo works. Williams nails the character, managing to appear at one time both mild and dangerous. He looks the part as well, but no amount of makeup can cover the little gestures and facial ticks that remind us that we are watching Robin Williams in a fine piece of stunt casting. He is good, but how much better could the part have been if played by an actor already the correct age - say, Ian Holm, or maybe, casting against type, Patrick Stewart? The rest of the cast is rock solid, making sure their characters are people instead of props for the Williams Show. Two big mistakes must be noted. First, Sy is told that he is fired and must leave at the end of the week. The end of the week? Did writer/director Mark Romanek ever work on our planet? On the Earth I know, an employee in Sy"s situation would be escorted from the premises by security and never allowed to return. The second blunder comes late in the film, when Sy delivers a soliloquy that reveals why he became the way he is. How Romanek came to believe we needed a pat explanation for Sy"s behavior is beyond me. It"s fun to drive home while discussing plot points and character motivation. The mistakes nearly ruin the nasty fun of One Hour Photo, but not quite, because the parts that work are strong enough to overshadow the parts that fail. And maybe, just maybe, there may be hope for Robin Williams after all. Maybe.