Bright Lights Film Journal

Two Hour Movie (Starring Robin Williams in <em>One Hour Photo</em>)

Robin Williams morphs again, and still nobody’s laughing

We all have met a man like Seymour Parrish at some point in our lives. Whether he was refilling our slurpies at the local 7-11, repairing a leaky faucet in the bathroom, fixing the hard drive of the computer, or just processing our film at One Hour Photo, he seemed as much a part of his surroundings as the surroundings seemed a part of themselves. Innocuous and bland on one hand, mysterious and sinister on the other, men like Sy register, when they register at all, as ciphers worth avoiding.

Nobody knows who Robin Williams really is. If ever a man was masked, that man is Robin Williams. When we watch him raining nonsense like a cloudburst on TV, everyone cracks up. Why? Because no one knows what else to do. Yo! There’s a guy acting like a fool in the studio. Should we react? Should we smirk? Who knows? Don’t just stand there. Do something. Maybe we should just start laughing?

We know from all those down-and-dirty tell-all bios that Williams was a full-fledged party animal. Whether it was boogieing with Belushi during the deadly final binge or zapping his way across stage and screen like a real live coke fiend on a tear, Williams was hysterical, if not always ha-ha funny, in more ways than one.

Then what happened to Williams is what happens to most of us if and when we live long enough. He went clean. He said goodbye to the drugs. He said hello to Narcotics Anonymous. In addition, and perhaps most of all, he waved adieu to his career. Being an over-the-top funny man without mother’s little helper proved not only difficult for Williams, it proved impossible.

As he remade himself in an image of an image of an image of his former self, with the concordant therapies, oaths, psychoanalysis, and multistep programs, Williams’ comedy, or what was left of his it, nosedived. He went from being a class clown to the head of the class, and no one was bothering to laugh.

As much as Williams embodied the Me Decade, the excessive 1980s when the mantra was Greed is Good, in the Let’s Get Ready for the New Millennium1990s he was Mr. Straighten Up And Fly Right, a clean and sober Dr. Feelgood. His films during the last decade were like est or incense or Deepak Chopra. And still no one was laughing. Jokes sometimes seem powerless in the face of in-your-face reality, so his laugh lines disappeared with the dope. But Williams, God bless his tragiccomic soul, is an endlessly evolving Yoda. As we blunder into an uncertain future full of fears and pandemic illusions, he has morphed again – this time, glory be, into a psycho maniac.

Last year’s Insomnia sets the tone for his latest film, One Hour Photo. Directed with the gloss of a TV commercial by first-timer Rick Romanek (he of the Madonna videos fame), One Hour Photo tiptoes over well-trod cinematic ground, overdosing on warmed-over moralism, but without much point or panache. The main character, lovable, laughable Sy Parrish, portrayed by lovable, laughable Robin Williams, is the universal Mr. Lonely Hearts biting his tongue behind the counter at One Hour Photo. Pleasant and sweet on the face of it, scratch the surface of the middle-aged techie and there lies a seething monster. And what really gets Sy’s goat? Wouldn’t you know it? Of all things, sexual impropriety. (Watch out! Duck and cover! Here come the Purity Police!)

Sy Parrish becomes obsessed with the exemplary suburban and almost perfect Yorkin family. Mrs.Yorkin, Nina (Connie Nielsen), is a world-class babe. Her son Jakob (Dylan Smith) is as cute as a button. For God’s sake, he’s an actual living breathing one-in-a-million Kodak moment. And Dad, dear old Dad, Will Yorkin (Michael Vartan), is a millionaire and a heel and worst of all in Sy’s eyes – gasp! – an adulterer. Sy the photo guy is the nut that knows everyone’s darkest secret – even though Sy Parrish’s secret is darker than all of ’em put together.

One wall in Sy’s lowdown apartment is plastered with snapshots of the fabulous Yorkins: vacationing, laughing, loving, birthdaying, putting on the schmaltz for the hungry eye of the insatiable camera lens. It’s one great big deliriously happy family. And the photos are one big deliriously happy shrine to Sy Parrish’s twisted imagination. Sy the stalker, unbeknownst to the Yorkins, is fixating and photographing them like mad. Sy is delusional and imagines he’s the Yorkins’ jolly uncle with a vengeance. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and Alex the Vindictive in Fatal Attraction (1987) wink at the audience and vanish into the gloss. The kind of demonic, uncontrolled, insane energy needed from the lead of One Hour Photo (Robert De Niro? Glenn Close?) is beyond the present-day Robin Williams.

The film is told in flashback. It opens with Sy being questioned by a nosy but sympathetic cop. “Why did you do it, Sy? What was it about Will Yorkin?” In other words, before you can say boo! we know from the get-go that Sy Parrish has flipped his wig. Now that he’s exposed, it was time to sit back and relax and wait for the inevitable. There was, as the saying goes, nowhere to go but down. The tension necessary to make this work cohere was vapor dissolving in a flicker. Robin Williams may still be able to compel a motion picture camera, more or less, but there is nothing like a great screenplay to get the juices flowing.

As the credits at the end of the film rolled down the screen, I stood dizzily perplexed by One Hour Photo. It felt like I had just spent the last two hours gorging on gummy bears. My stomach ached. My head was throbbing at the nonsense I’d witnessed, at the inevitable terrible prank. A woman with a baby in a stroller at the back of the theater was good enough to interrupt my reverie: “Pardon me. Excuse me for disturbing you, but I just had to talk to someone. Did that film we just saw make any sense at all?” I smiled at the woman’s nerve, it was so typically, so adorably New York of her, and answered, as best I could: “Only in a world that has stopped making sense.”