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Movies: One Hour Photo

(Vague Spoilers for Signs herein.)

There are two types of thrillers: Thrillers that depend on plot, and thrillers that depend on atmosphere. (I'm fully aware that the preceding statement is, like, 400% incorrect. But stick with me, here -- I'm making a point.) Movies like The Usual Suspects and, more recently, Signs keep you on the edge of your seat because the plot is so elaborate that you never know what is going to happen next. But movies like Psycho are almost completely atmosphere-driven -- you grind your teeth because you know exactly what's going to happen next, and that "next thing" ain't gonna be good. What you don't want to see, though, is a thriller start out in one vein and keeps lapsing into the other. This was essentially my objection to the ending of Signs: The whole movie was plot driven, and then, in the last five minutes, it turned into "And then God saved them, the end. P.s. don't think too hard about the rest of the movie." If you're going to pitch your tent on plot, I expect you to stay camped there for the duration of the movie.

On the other hand, One Hour Photo is all atmosphere. Or, at least, it should be. Instead, director Mark Romanek keeps ruining a perfectly fine movie by tossing in handfuls of plot as seemingly random moments. The story centers around Sy Parrish, a clerk in a Wal*Martesque photo lab. Sy takes his job very, very serious -- so seriously that you're pretty sure that it's all he has to live for. As it turns out, Sy also has his family -- except that it's not really his family, technically. In fact, it's someone else's family entirely. But Sy has been developing this family's photos for so long that he has come to feel like an Uncle -- the intense, unhinged Uncle Sy. The family in question knows nothing about Sy's fixation. And Sy, truth be told, knows much less about the family than he seems to think. He believes them to be the very model of the happiness, and when he begins to learn otherwise his obsession spins out of control.

That's enough of the plot for you to get a feel for the film. And, frankly, that's enough plot to carry the film. Robin Williams does a fantastic job as Sy, making the character entirely believable. Sy is one of those people that's a little "off' -- not so much that you don't feel sorry for his not having friends, but just enough so that you don't especially want to befriend him yourself. That right there is enough to make anyone uncomfortable while watching Photo, and when Sy begins to slide into madness the film becomes downright scary.

The problem is, every time you start to become immersed in the atmosphere of One Hour Photo, it suddenly switches gears and throws some plot at you -- and it's often plot that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Having jarred you out of your reverie, the plot disappears and the atmosphere resumes, but getting back into the groove is like falling back asleep after being awakened by a phone call.

If the movie had stuck to what it was good at -- namely, sitting back and letting Mork from Ork creep the pants off you -- it would have been excellent. But the decision to try and liven things up with some completely unnecessary plot twists was a big mistake, in my opinion. Maybe if the screenplay had gone through another revision this would have been corrected. As it stands, Photo, while enjoyable, feels somewhat undeveloped.

Posted on October 16, 2002 to Movies


** As always, the comments may (and probably will) contain spoilers **

For those of you who have seen Photo and are wondering what in the hell I'm carping about, I specifically felt that (a) the "coincidence" which allowed Sy to realize that the family had problems, and (b) the ending, were both waaaaaaaaaay too contrived. The director should have stuck to creepy, IMHO.

Posted by: Matthew on October 16, 2002 9:16 PM