Many of us remember when Robin Williams first landed on Planet Earth, back in 1978. He was known as Mork from Ork then, and he was American entertainment's first intergalactic clown, complete with clown shirt and clown pants. With Williams improvising his ass off (nobody is better at pumping the wellsprings of comic invention), TV's "Mork and Mindy" was an immediate sensation. But like a comet, it burned bright, then it burned out. Williams, one quickly realized, should be taken in small doses.
His subsequent movie career has been a long attempt on the part of Hollywood to both uncork (i.e., exploit) and bottle (i.e., tame) Williams' mercurial talent. Some would argue that he's at his best when he's allowed to do his own thing ' in Good Morning, Vietnam, for example, where he improvised his ass off and, if you ask me, made an ass of himself. Others point to his noblesse oblige roles in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, both of which got Oscar's attention. Still others think Williams hit his stride as the severely corseted Mrs. Doubtfire.
Personally, I'll stick with the standup act, which provides the ever-fascinating spectacle of a man free-associating his way into something resembling madness. Of all his movies so far, only Aladdin did justice to the genius part of Williams' talent. I also liked him in such modest comedies as The Best of Times and Cadillac Man, where he played ordinary guys in extraordinary situations. It's when Williams plays extraordinary guys in extraordinary situations ' Hook, Jack, Patch Adams ' that you want to beat him with a shtick.
One Hour Photo is part of Williams' Black and Blue Period, which has come upon us like a repressed memory from the comedian's reportedly lonely childhood. In last June's Insomnia, he was a cold-blooded killer who played catch-me-if-you-can with Al Pacino. In April's Death to Smoochy, he was a kiddie-show host who didn't take kindly to being replaced. And now, in One Hour Photo, he's a photo-lab technician who, obsessed with a family he's been turning into 3 x 5 glossies for years, finally decides it's time to crop Dad out of the picture.
Dad deserves it. He's been having an affair, which Williams' Sy Parrish ' or is it Sigh Perish? ' picked up on by cross-referencing the family's photos with those of Dad's mistress. With what appears to be no life of his own, Sy is a photographic stalker. He doesn't show up at your doorstep, asking whether you can come out (or he can come in) to play ' not in the early scenes, anyway. But by studiously poring over the snapshots you've taken, he starts to feel like a member of your family, especially if your last name's Yorkin.
Yorkin, your kin ' Freud would have been all over that one. And if there's a problem with One Hour Photo, it's that the story develops so cleanly, so clearly. There aren't any smudges, any red eyes. There is Sy's bleached-yellow hair, which seems a stretch for a guy who has almost no meaningful contact with other people. (Dye job, die job ' Freud would be all over that one, too.) Writer-director Mark Romanek doesn't seem particularly interested in Sy's mind. Instead of being taken inside, we're kept on the outside, left to draw our own conclusions.
My conclusion is that Sy is a lot like many other cinematic psychos we've known, from Peeping Tom to Taxi Driver to The Stepfather to The Cable Guy. Early on, he seems crazily normal, then he seems abnormally crazy. And Romanek has him reciting these aperÃus (in voice-over narration) that sound like they were lifted from Susan Sontag's ground-and-wind-breaking collection of essays, On Photography. "No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget," Sy sighs. And at first you think, "How true." Then you think, "Well, duh."
What One Hour Photo does have is a look ' suburbia as one gigantic chem lab. The SavMart store where Sy works is so antiseptically pristine that when he walks down the aisles his shoes squeak and squawk. And despite living on what one would assume to be a modest salary, he's got a white-on-white apartment that looks like it's been interior-designed to within an inch of its life. That's the point, I suppose, that in our camera-ready world, everything has a chilly glamour about it. But the guy works at a one-hour photo lab, not Architectural Digest.
Speaking of which, one-hour photo-processing seems rather passÃ, technologically. Wouldn't a cutting-edge psycho be more interested in digital photography or video? You get the impression that Romanek started with this idea of a quiet-keeps-to-himself kind of guy who inhabits a picture-perfect world of his own devising, and that's not such a bad idea, but you have to devise a world for him. You can't just click the shutter and hope it all turns out. For better or worse, Sy's as two-dimensional as the snapshots he loves.
Williams gives a meticulously precise performance. You can tell he's thought through every line, every gesture. And he does a better job of burying his standup persona ' "George Jessel on acid," as he calls it ' than he's ever done before. But why ask a guy like Robin Williams to shut everything down and turn out all the lights? He shouldn't have to do that to frighten us. If you ask me, Patch Adams was quite scary and Mrs. Doubtfire was downright terrifying. Williams should run toward, not away from, his inner George Jessel. That way madness lies.