Robin Williams fans have seen all the faces and heard all the voices before, but rarely have so many skills combined to forge one creepy, unforgettable character with such uncharacteristic subtlety. In the chilling One Hour Photo , a psychological thriller remarkable for its understated lighting and camerawork, and for its willingness to let the audience act as its own judge and jury while building a haunting profile of a not entirely unsympathetic wacko, the clown with many faces gives the performance of his life.
He is Seymour (Sy) Parrish, a lonely, sad, friendless film processor who works in the dreary one-hour photo-finishing lab of a SavMart store. Thin-lipped and bespectacled in his regimented lab smock, with the anemic-looking skin of a vegetarian and so little hair you can see right through to his scalp, Sy is pure cellophane, the kind of invisible man you look at and never see. There’s something fetid about him, even though he’s as sterile and impersonal as stainless steel. His boss thinks he’s a harmless weirdo; his customers take the lollipops he offers them with their rolls of film and regard his sickening smile with mild curiosity and an occasional shudder. What nobody knows is that Sy is slowly slipping into the grip of schizophrenia.
You see people like Sy in every mall: little gray people doing their work like Stepford wives and Alphaville robots, eating their tuna sandwiches at the lunch counter, shuffling home at night to sip a beer and watch television before the routine starts all over again the next morning. Who are they? Do they have a story? Like the ducks in J.D. Salinger, where do they go in the winter when the lake freezes over? Sy is a little bit different: He dons his ironed discount-store windbreaker at the end of the day, returns to his characterless apartment, methodically drinks a glass of water and stares blankly at kiddy cartoons, surrounded by walls covered with the photos he’s developed over the years of customers who intrigue him. One family in particular, the Yorkins-pretty Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), her hunky husband Will (Michael Vartan) and their son Jake (Dylan Smith III)-hold a peculiar fascination for him. Sy has developed pictures of their vacations and picnics and Christmas parties for years–but when the camera follows him home and invades his space, we see a collage of their lives on his wall that is more than a benign obsession. The Yorkins are the idealized family “Uncle Sy” has always longed for; they don’t know that he’s a stalker in the making, coming slowly unglued. Living vicariously through their snapshots is no longer enough for Sy. The Yorkins are about to crash right out of their front-porch swing.
To the old lady who only photographs her cats, the nurse who does before-and-after shots of face lifts, the amateur pornographer and the insurance adjuster who brings in shots of dented fenders, he’s just “Sy the photo guy.” But the Yorkins are the American Dream, unaware that Sy is watching them come and go and envying their normalcy, doubly oblivious to the fact that this unassuming little man is keeping an extra set of their prints for himself, visiting their house when they’re away, touching their things, using their toilet, watching their TV. The catalyst Sy needs to bring himself closer finally arrives unexpectedly when another pretty customer brings in her own roll of film-and there, in the negatives rolling through Sy’s processing machine, is the shocking revelation that sends him over the edge: Mr. Yorkin is cheating on his perfect wife! What happens next has the spine-tingling elements of the best psychological crime thrillers. Bring a Valium.
Neatly written and directed by Mark Romanek, One Hour Photo is a breathtaking study of a twisted sister who exists on the perimeters of life. The explanations are saved for the end, but by then you will have probably built your own sympathy for this disenfranchised character, thanks to a meticulous, manicured performance by Robin Williams that combines erratic behavior with enough real emotional depth to create a three-dimensional human being out of shadows and disinfectant. Mr. Williams’ sickening smile is a smear that masks a perfidious personality as touching as it is warped, molded almost entirely out of body language. To its credit, the film drowns you in dread without any of the violence or bloodshed that seems de rigueur in most Hollywood films about psychos. The fear factor is intense, but it is achieved through silence, observation and sensory perception. (You can almost smell the developing fluid under Mr. Williams’ yellow fingernails.) Jeff Cronenweth’s brilliantly surreal camerawork in the fluorescent aisles of the SavMart provides an antiseptic ambiance that makes the star look like an X-ray or an amoeba moving dangerously through the bloodstream toward the heart. The result is a compact chiller that is both scary and artfully composed, with a poisonous performance by Mr. Williams that is unforgettable. Too bad the Yorkins didn’t just blow up their own pictures on their home computer. After the grim terrors in Mr. Williams’ one-hour photo lab, expect sales of digital cameras to soar.
Hollywood Gone Haywire
Two classes I never want to attend: Hollywood on Hollywood, and Al Pacino on comedy. So imagine the unexpected delight I felt when I actually liked Simone , a clever, innovative satire of movies and consumer technology that marches to its own drumbeat and comes up with continual surprises. Numbskulls and computer nerds keep threatening a world in which all of the acting will be done by digitally generated characters who look, act and sound like people but are dead as dodos. We saw an example of this virtual reality last year in Richard Linklater’s ridiculously overrated cartoon feature Waking Life . Enough of that, says I. How bracing to see my sentiments shared by the makers of Simone . It’s a hilarious object lesson in the kind of hell Hollywood could unleash if technology takes over.
Opening scene: Winona Ryder appears as a temperamental fruitcake who walks out on a pretentious project lacking in free perks (there’s a joke here somewhere), stranding the high-strung director, Viktor Taransky (Mr. Pacino, with a legitimate reason, for a change, to pull his hair and stop shaving), with a disaster on his hands. Catherine Keener, in another of her many steel-balls roles, plays the studio exec (also Viktor’s ex-wife) who wants to shelve the picture. Poor Viktor-a man living in the wrong era, when investments and returns have replaced passion and art-mortgages everything to remake the picture, but nobody will work with him. Enter the always-bizarre Elias Koteas as a nut case with an eye tumor (all those computer rays, you know) who provides a death-bed solution to Viktor’s dilemma: “a combination of Jane Fonda, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren” created entirely on his own computer and called … Simone! O.K., you can create an image of beauty, but how do you make it act? Nine months later, when Viktor emerges from seclusion, the completed film causes a box-office avalanche, and Simone is the sensation of the century. There’s only one problem: The world has fallen in love with a star under personal contract that Viktor can’t produce. From here, the joke backfires with the force of a bad Mexican dinner, and the snafus multiply faster than the sight gags in a Three Stooges one-reeler.
How do you market a fraud that only exists in your software? As Viktor keeps the press, the studio and even her co-stars at bay, the movie’s humor comes from the elaborate subterfuge surrounding the mythic secrecy of the elusive Simone. For a while, everyone buys the story that Simone is agoraphobic, with a morbid fear of people, heights and germs. “That’s terrible-even Garbo would be on the talk-show circuit if she was alive today!” the moguls scream. Viktor rakes in millions projecting her face on Times Square, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. Computer-generated from a mathematical equation, Simone becomes the first animatronic movie star, but what do you do when she wins two Oscars in the same year and you have to get her onstage in person? Viktor learns the hard way how the same technology that can create a Simone can also do her in. Before he can reverse her public image, Viktor discovers, to his horror, that the Frankenstein monster has left the building. Through a computer glitch, she promotes the virtues of cigarettes and advocates killing dolphins, but nothing can sate her public’s lust for more. Inevitably, Simone makes the cover of Time . Desperate, Viktor kills off the Babe That Ate Burbank by dumping all of his software off the California coast, then finds himself accused of abduction, embezzlement and murder. “I’ve stabbed people in the back, clawed and slept my way to where I am, but even I can’t replace Simone,” wails Ms. Keener. Mr. Pacino’s best line, as he’s being dragged away in handcuffs: “Ten years of abject failure in the movie business constitutes an insanity plea in any courtroom!” The movie has, by now, turned into a riotous farce that would turn Preston Sturges green with envy-but like all great farce, there’s a grain of truth in every cynical scene. The absurd limitations of virtual reality contain their own obvious warning, but there’s an up side: If your stars are created by simulation, you don’t have to pay them.
Written, produced and directed by Andrew Niccol, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of the equally imaginative The Truman Show , and a New Zealander who knows his way around blue screens and futuristic 3D animation (he also directed Gattaca ), Simone pokes fun at a celebrity-obsessed culture, the elusiveness of power, the self-delusion of film-industry egomaniacs, the trashiness of tabloid journalism, and even the way Hollywood cooks its own books. The film also provides meaty roles for Jay Mohr, gorgeous Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Evan Rachel Wood, the lovely, mature 14-year-old who was one of the reasons a lot of people tuned in to the much-lamented TV series Once and Again . Best of all, Simone has a rumpled and charming centerpiece in Al Pacino, who gives a performance for which I was in no way prepared. He’s looser here than he’s ever been before, and actually shows some flair for comedy as a man on a roller coaster who can’t get off. When a serious actor of his stature says “Who needs actors anyway?”, his sardonic expression says more than any special-effects “synthespian” ever could.