One Hour Photo
A Film Directed and Written by Mark Romanek

First-time feature director Mark Romanek's film One Hour Photo, which he also wrote, looks like a showcase for the talents of Robin Williams, and in many ways it is. But this thoughtful, carefully-crafted movie is a far cry from the self-indulgent, cloyingly sentimental hokum of some of Williams' other efforts like Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come and Jakob The Liar.

Williams is called upon to go far beyond the stock persona of the zany eccentric he has traded on for so long. He rises to meet the challenge with a skill that was often suggested by his earlier work, but seldom realized until now. As Seymour "Sy" Parrish, he brings to life a lonely, confused, damaged character whose longing to belong is archetypically human.

Parrish is in charge of a one hour photo booth in a generic "big box" department store. He is a shy, softspoken man who, with little else in his life, takes great pride in his work. He fantasizes being part of the larger world, and little by little lets his fantasies invade his real life. The collision of the mundane and the illusory is predictably devastating.

Parrish's sense of alienation and frustration, his longing for contact, becomes fixated on a particular family whose photographs he has been processing for nearly a decade. He makes extra copies of the pictures they bring in and preserves them on a wall of his otherwise bare room. But Romanek (as writer) - although exploiting the creepiness of the situation for a frisson of suspense - doesn't take the easy road of making Parrish into a stock movie psycho.

Instead he creates a picture of the dark side of lives lived in "the geography of nowhere," the faceless, impersonal suburban, mall-dominated landscape that reduces individuals to interchangeable "labor units." He explores the depersonalization and isolation to which the loss of any sense of true community has led and creates a sympathetic picture of the pain of a life "of quiet desperation."

Although there is a narrative line to the story, it is only important as a way of exploring the painful and moving condition in which Parrish finds himself. For this film is really a character piece more than anything else, along the lines of the classic Beatles's song,  Eleanor Rigby; a recognition and exploration of the character of what Lennon & McCartney called, "all the lonely people."

As such, it is a film with precise, humble ambitions - and it fulfills those aims in a very satisfying, compelling way that engages our sympathy and leaves us looking differently at those around us. Certainly part of the film's intent is to invite us to contemplate the impersonal cruelty and de-humanization of "big-box-America."

A second theme explores the reality behind the suburban fascination with the image of the ideal family and the ideal life - and the gulf between that image and the lives as they are actually lived. A third invites us into the world of the "invisible" people - those we pass without notice time and again - and suggests that we accept society's treatment of them (and ourselves?) as expendable, interchangeable - walking statistics, as it were - at a high price, both to them and to us.

But the movie never preaches, nor does it seek to drag the audience to a particular conclusion. It is an exploration, rather than a morality play. It is deftly and skillfully written, with a measured paced, that allows the audience plenty of time to assimilate and reflect on what they are seeing. The characters a deftly and sparingly drawn, with enough effective intimations of complexity to engage our belief.

And it is the characters, as they are written and as they are portrayed, that make this film interesting. The situations are commonplace: a man loses his job because of minor offenses. But because we are party to the wrenching inner turmoil that occasions those offenses - because we understand why Parrish acts as he does and we can sympathize with his emotional motivation - the event becomes important, out of the ordinary, even cataclysmic.

Much of the credit goes to the actors. As I said before, Robin Williams has never done a sustained, honest dramatic performance of this caliber before. Although some of his comic performances have been wonderful (Mrs. Doubtfire, for instance) he reaches a new level as an actor here, that certainly will be given consideration for an Academy Award.

Creating a character who is as repressed, as isolated, as externally featureless as Parrish, and bringing him to life is a monumental task for an actor. How do you play "ordinariness?" But Williams succeeds - without any of the pandering or pyrotechnics on which he has previously relied.

His honesty and daring - letting much be done by little - carry the day. There is a scene where he sits on a bed in the store where he works, almost immobile, in which he conveys more honest , complex emotion in one shot, than he did in the whole two plus hours of What Dream may Come. Working with body-language and all the subtle and indefinable clues by which a truly fine actor conveys the palpable reality of character, Williams creates a living center for the film.

Connie Nielsen, as Nina Yorkin, the mother of the family Parrish "adopts," provides Williams with something effective against which he can work. She doesn't allow her character to be reduced to the stereotypical "soccer mom," and takes advantage of the intelligence of Romanek's script to add interesting and unexpected layers of insight and empathy.

Her bright self-absorption and complacency are an effective and utterly believable anchor for Parrish's obsession, yet her sensitive concern for her child implies the depths of vulnerability and real feeling in the core of her being that her outward life hides and protects. She creates a counterpoint to Parrish - in an isolation that is in many ways just as confining, even if it appears to be of her own choosing.

As Jakob Yorkin, Nina's son and the emotional link Parrish imagines with the family - in his fantasies he is "Uncle Sy" - young Dylan Smith does a fine, highly natural job. The unsteady balance of attraction and restraint in his relationship with Parrish creates a strong current of tension that animates the relationship. His attitude of skeptical observation conveys a pre-teen child's "approach-avoidance" relationship with the issue of adult life very effectively.

Certainly Romanek the director - in giving Williams room and support to throw away his usual crutches, and in building and guiding the process that leads to such a convincing ensemble performance - deserves credit for the performances as well. And as screenwriter, he has given himself (as director) and his actors a polished and thoughtful script from which to work.

Romanek's experience is in music videos, but there is none of the jerky, rapid-cutting, hand-held feel of such production here. In fact, he has opted for a modern adaptation of classical cinematic story-telling, with a bit of an "art-film" influence. The camera is static, or moves slowly and deliberately. Shots are held beyond the usual end point - we are invited to keep looking, to look a little longer, a little closer, a little deeper. The style of the film is a sort of antithesis of the short-attention-span pandering of much mainstream Hollywood product.

The work of cinematographer Jeff Cromenweth also deserves mention. Camera placement, focus and movement - especially in the sequences in the store - give an almost agoraphobic quality that emphasizes the apparent limitlessness - gives the store the feel of an endless desert - a vast wasteland - a vertiginous dreamscape.

The original score for the film, by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, is as forceful as it is unusual. Low-key and spare - often single melodic lines on an unaccompanied instrument - the music re-enforces and enhances the mood of the film without intruding. The suggestive tonalities heighten the sense of suspense, and the unresolved melodic lines reflect the precarious balance the characters are struggling to maintain.

This is one of those rare films becomes more interesting the more you think about it. Romanek and his cast and crew have created something here that is both much less and much more than the "suspense" film as which it is being marketed. It is a film that breaks out of genre, ignores convention and invites audiences to think, to watch, to feel, with an honesty and sincerity that much Hollywood product tries unsuccessfully to fake.

That's my take on it. What's yours?