Die yuppie scum

One Hour Photo is a thriller whose time has come

Films like Clockwatchers and Office Space have milked the comic potential in the horrendously banal workplace, but One Hour Photo treats blue-collar malaise with high seriousness.
Director Mark Romanek transforms menial, dehumanizing work into the stuff of Kubrickian thriller as he plunges viewers into the grim facts of one man’s life recounted in the voice-over narration of Sy Parrish (Robin Williams).

Sy is a nebbish photo developer in an anonymous Wal-Mart-type megastore who treats the place like his own personal Mayberry as he chats up the customers, inquires about their lives and makes sure the service he provides is perfect. Clearly there is no place for the friendly, proud Sy in this megastore more committed to speed, efficiency and low cost than the human element. Romanek plays with our ambivalence about the anonymous modern world, inviting us to pity Sy even as we find his enthusiasm for his job more creepy and weird than admirable.

Sy’s one relief from his cheerless existence is the affluent young family whose photos he has developed over the years. Pitifully yearning for the happiness he sees in the Yorkins’ photos, Sy has transformed the family into celebrities whose images decorate his dismal apartment. Blooming with prosperity and good looks, these Metropolitan Home-style queens are a colorful, vibrant antithesis to bland Sy, whose beige hair, clothes and apartment are an expression of his similarly blank life.

It’s a testament to the long-reaching critique at work that it’s not only Sy who lives vicariously and escapes his colorless life by losing himself in the happy photos he develops. One Hour Photo is a fundamental critique of all such psychologically needy “shopping” and a nation of Sys who believe the fantasy of perfection and happiness offered in the advertisements that wallpaper our lives with promises of contentment and grace.

Yuppie wife Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) has issues of her own, escaping a troubled marriage in the nation’s favorite leisure pursuit and form of therapy: shopping. And workaholic husband Will Yorkin is a restless consumer too, invested with a roving eye. When it fixes on another woman, Sy finds his fantasy of happy family life deeply shaken, and the thriller plot set in motion.

One Hour Photo initially has all the features of a proletarian return of the repressed — a Manhunter-brand serial killer yarn where a demented drone takes revenge on the designer-yuppies whose happiness taunts his banal existence.

But One Hour Photo is after bigger fish, using photography to explore the illusion of contentment America sells itself and the disturbing willingness of someone like Sy to believe. While honoring the suspense-building engine of a thriller, One Hour Photo creates a nightmare portrait of American life in details like Sy’s bullying, odious manager (played by Office Space’s unctuous Gary Cole), a slack-faced, hollow-eyed, and ordinary monster.

One Hour Photo isn’t without its problems. Though it capitalizes on the creepiness that has always dwelled beneath Robin Williams’ nearly demonic aim to please, it also suggests an actor self-consciously transforming himself from a loveable Hollywood sadsack into a sympathetic art-film sadsack. And while One Hour Photo signals the emergence of a talent savvy in film and contemporary photography, Romanek can often make his influences (Michael Mann, John Frankenheimer, Kubrick) so painfully clear that he flirts with a kind of hot-dogging superficiality that betrays his origins as an MTV video director.

One Hour Photo clearly takes some of its inspiration from contemporary photography’s Andreas Gursky-brand survey of forgotten public space and superstore architecture. Romanek suggests that people can also become invisible in our increasingly anonymous world, and he dares viewers to consider that what lurks behind such freaks and losers may be much sadder and troubling than the empty thrills of a serial killer plotline. One Hour Photo shows a void of loneliness that we as a culture reinforce by treating the anonymous people who pump our gas and press our suits as nonentities.