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Mork Goes Manson
by Lucius Shepard
September 18, 2002

When was the last time Robin Williams was funny? Probably sometime during the 1980s, back when his coke-fueled manic post-modern take on Jonathan Winters made yuppies everywhere laugh and laugh. But in the 90s, when America became—publicly at least—a little more drug intolerant, like many of his peers, Robin cleaned up his act and wasn't funny anymore. When he tries to do his old shtick these days, it's kind of embarrassing, like watching grandpaw after too much punch misbehaving at your eighteenth birthday party. Well, Robin's no fool. He recognized what was going on, becoming-culturally-outmoded-wise, and by choosing to act in films like the egregiously mawkish Dead Poets Society, the egregiously mawkish Good Will Hunting, the unbelievably egregiously mawkish Patch Adams, and others, he redefined himself, turning from a crazy woo-woo guy onto a buffoonish moral icon, a sentimental, politically correct cartoon. Now, his hair going gray, in his last three films he's shifted career gears again and is trying to carve out a niche as a character specializing in serial deviants.

And now (drum roll) he's funny again!

I mean, I can't think of anything much funnier than teensy, stout ol' Robin Williams coming after me with mean things on his mind, though I have to admit he does possess a genuine creepiness. (This was true even when he was intentionally funny; as with all comics, it's the dark side that generates the humor.) But RW's is not a truly menacing creepiness; it's a feeble, crotchety creepiness. It's almost an old-lady creepiness, as if he's been unable to escape his Mrs. Doubtfire role. For my part it's difficult to feel terror when confronted by someone with the facial aspect and general physicality of a Jewish grandmother, but I can suspend my disbelief for a couple of hours and imagine, as RW's latest film, One Hour Photo, suggests, that there are some of us who might find him terrifying.

Seymour Parrish (Williams) is the manager of a photo shop located in a SavMart, a Wallmart-like sterile temple of consumerism. He lives alone and friendless in a spotless apartment, keeps a gerbil for a pet, eats in a characterless mall restaurant, and displays a compulsive and proprietary air toward the photo shop, sporting his uniform vest as if it were an emblem of office, an attitude that brings him into conflict with the store manager, Bill Owens (Gary Cole, here playing a naturalistic version of the evil corporate toad he first portrayed in Office Space), who constantly reminds him that his true position is faceless underling, not entrepreneur. Over the years, Seymour has become a fixture at the shop and has come to know the names and faces and even the addresses of his regular customers. Being family-less, he uses them to provide himself with an ersatz family life.

Occasionally he makes extra prints of their photographs and frames them for his own use. He is especially fascinated by a young upscale family, the Yorkins, Will (Michael Varten) and Nina (Connie Nielsen) and their son Jakob (Dylan Smith). They are, to his eyes, perfect. He wants to be an uncle to Jakob and daydreams of being a favorite relative, one who lives in their home. He has devoted an entire wall of his apartment to a photo gallery that spans the history of the Yorkin's marriage from its early days to Jakob's ninth birthday. Whatever the pressures that have squeezed Seymour's life into this horrid, flavorless simplicity, they are beginning to leak out. Afflicted with bloody nightmares, he spaces out at work, and his obsession with the Yorkins drives him to hunt them up in places other than the mall—he attempts to befriend Jakob; he manages to bump into Nina at a restaurant and pretends to be reading the same Deepak Chopra book as she; he takes to parking in front of their house and his fantasies of family inclusion deepen. The hit fits the shan when Seymour is given notice by Bill Owens (the cause being his discovery that Seymour has been making hundreds of extra prints) and then develops a roll of film brought in by Will's mistress Maya Burson (Erin Daniels) that gives evidence of their relationship. His image of family perfection shattered, Seymour hunts the adulterers down at a hotel and, with hunting knife and camera, exacts a curious revenge that is in itself an acting-out of the childhood events formative in the development of his stunted and twisted personality.

Mark Romanek's direction is unimaginative, but his imaginative devices—most notably his Kubrickian evocation of the SavMart's white sterility, an image system by which he conveys the idea that Seymour continues to place himself in sterile boxes in hopes of containing the pressures within him—are both heavy-handed and derivative. The balances of the film are off and there are many other elements contributing to this. For one, an intermittent and entirely unnecessary voiceover by Williams that attempts to mislead the audience into thinking that they are watching a more typical serialist plot than in fact they are. For another, a misleading framing device that to anyone conversant with Hollywood process will give away the ending. The soundtrack is a mixed blessing, at times effectively allowing the pastel silence of Seymour's artificial world to become our silence, but at other times laying on the dramatic menace far too thickly. Romanek's storytelling is admirably economic—he shows us the troubled marriage with a few broad but efficiently managed strokes and does not give us too much information concerning Seymour's troubled past. But perhaps he should have given us none at all and spent more time on building suspense. The tension attendant upon Seymour's disintegration seems underplayed in light of what we are being led to expect. One rule that applies to all forms of storytelling is that if you are going to tempt your audience with red herrings, you need to be consistent in the manner you employ them; otherwise your deceptions will be perceived as a dishonesty and not—as you hoped—a clever trick. We already know more than we need to know about broken creatures like Seymour. One Hour Photo does not illuminate us further on the subject. It would have been more intriguing, more artful, to watch him break completely and have the reason why left to our imaginations. This might have permitted a more intricate view of the family, who—though they are put forward as typical, as people with whom we are familiar—are nonetheless intrinsically of greater interest than Seymour, who is merely broken.

As to the acting, the supporting cast performs more than serviceably—Gary Cole may come to regret his proficiency in this kind of role after his tenth repetition of it and Connie Nielsen is thoroughly convincing in her alternation between serenity and quiet desperation. This, however, is RW's picture and his Seymour seems well crafted, appropriately clenched and yearning. I say "seems" because through no fault of RW's I have a permanent expectation that he will begin speaking in a helium voice or imitate a parrot. But disassociating myself from that expectation, I have to give him a B. His performance is hindered by the fact that someone—Romanek, I assume—had him dye his close-cropped hair a golden blond for the part, asking us to wonder if Seymour on his way from abused child to tormented obsessive passed through a Dennis Rodman phase, or that he belongs to a gay bowling league, or...whatever. Gray is the color of Seymour's story, and gray hair would have been more fitting. At the same time, while the rigorous blandness of the character as presented by RW is in keeping with the self-restraint we are told that Seymour must exert, a hint or two more of coloration would have been welcome.

The most annoying element of One Hour Photo is its simplistic family values moral, which is so thickly lacquered over the surface of the film, its gloss deflects our view. It dictates that the wages of neglect committed by any father must be judged reflexively, that a womanizer and an abuser are no different in the eyes of God, and we are asked to perceive Seymour as—in a way—sympathetic. This last-struck tone of the film makes the whole piece ring hollow, as does the implication that Will Yorkin deserved his fate, that he was lucky it wasn't worse. By doing this, Romanek directs us away from what we should consider, from what his pretentious use, both skillfully and less so, of the camera promised to show us, something hiding beneath the deceptively simple surface of the world, something more compelling than the obvious fact that there are lurkers in our depths who may find us tempting. As a result, you feel at the end of One Hour Photo that you have watched an interesting failure, a not-screamingly bad movie (for which you are deeply, truly grateful), one you won't be thinking about very much and may mention to your friends, but if you do, you certainly won't spend the time in doing so that I have herein done.