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REVIEW: Mork Goes Wacko, But This Is No Comedy; Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo”

REVIEW: Mork Goes Wacko, But This Is No Comedy; Mark Romanek's "One Hour Photo"

REVIEW: Mork Goes Wacko, But This Is No Comedy; Mark Romanek's "One Hour Photo"

by Scott Foundas/indieWIRE

In “One Hour Photo” (which Fox Searchlight releases today, August 21, 2002) you’re supposed to take Robin Williams seriously. You know this from the start, because Williams has a close-cropped, bleached-blond hairdo; narrow, beady eyes; and a stiff, awkward gait. Yes, Williams is wacko — an introverted, fortyish manager of the photo department in a Wal Mart-esque megastore who, well, just has to have something sinister in the works. (Why else would he be single, with a funny haircut, working the kind of job that, in the movies, can only be held by crackpots waiting to burst or gorgeous, Jennifer Aniston-types who know they deserve better?) But try as Williams might — and this is perhaps the most prissy, nagging performance he has given in a career of prissy, nagging performances — you can’t help laughing at him from the start; he’s funnier here than he’s been in quite some time. The more he tries to unnerve you with his weirdness, the more his entire performance implodes on itself. If only the film’s distributors were marketing “One Hour Photo” as a comedy, they’d be set.

But no one involved with this lumbering mess — a yuppie-voyeurism thriller 15 years too late, directed by a Stanley Kubrick parasite (music-video wiz Mark Romanek) — has enough good sense to take things lightly. Rather, “One Hour Photo” plods along so humorlessly that it isn’t even enjoyable as the trash that it is. Romanek really thinks that he’s saying something here, something about loneliness (that all middle-aged bachelors are really psychotic perverts ready to pounce) and about corporate impersonality (that Williams’ store manager isn’t “sensitive” enough to his individual needs, the pity). It’s an approach so didactic that it stifles any chance the movie has to generate popcorn thrills, so all that remains is a big suburban bore that takes itself more seriously than “American Beauty.”

In the film, Williams becomes obsessed with the family photos of one of his regular customers (the beautiful Connie Nielsen, from “Gladiator“) and, in turn, becomes obsessed with her family as well. Even though he only sees these still images (accompanied by some fleeting glimpses of the family in the store), he’s sure that they represent the life he has always wanted for himself. He begins to fantasize being part of this family and — snap, just like that — he goes from being a friendly photo-tech to an unfriendly stalker. Except you couldn’t care less whether or not Williams shows up on his victims’ doorstep and hacks them all into little pieces, because Romanek doesn’t make the victimized family any more compelling than one of those smiling sample photos that sit inside unsold picture frames.

“One Hour Photo” is the latest part of a concerted effort by Williams to reinvent his on-screen persona, to make us think of him as “a real actor.” (It is but one of three films to be released this year, alongside Danny DeVito‘s “Death to Smoochy” and Christopher Nolan‘s “Insomnia,” in which Williams plays a psycho. Trying to decide which of these performances is worst is a futile endeavor.) But really, the film is a compendium of other recent Williams movies. It’s a murderous “Mrs. Doubtfire” inversion (instead of employing shameless, duplicitous antics to win back his own family, he’s after someone else’s), minus a bit (but not all) of the drag-show camp, with the actor himself stuck in “Bicentennial Man” mode (in every scene, it’s as though he’s trying his hardest to “act” human). Under the direction of Christopher Hampton, playing the mad bomber in the otherwise unmemorable remake of “The Secret Agent,” Williams was once truly menacing in a movie; here he’s just ticks and affectations, as mechanical as the interlocking parts of the photo-developing machine that Romanek fetishizes under the film’s opening titles.

“One Hour Photo” is the synthesis of two unwieldy mismatched talents. And just as you keep wishing Williams were more right for his role, you keep wanting Romanek to loosen up a bit and inject the movie with a little personality to keep it alive. But the film is all steely antiseptic surfaces, not because Romanek has anything compelling to say by them, but because they look cool, and because they’re good at duping some people into thinking they’re watching a real piece of high-style chic. (The studio — in this case, Fox — has evidently been duped too, opting to release the film via its Fox Searchlight banner in what may be the most dubious “art” branding of a film since “Passion of Mind” rolled out from Paramount Classics.) Romanek’s sophomore effort (following the little-seen “Static” way back in 1985) can’t even cut it when compared to the journeyman works of his music-video contemporaries David Fincher and Mark Pellington. What he has crafted here is a purely technical, self-serving exercise; a film that seems to be admiring itself in the mirror, taking snapshots.

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