A few years ago, Robin Williams quietly started a campaign to get people to take him seriously as an actor. He had already won an Oscar for his role in Good Will Hunting, but that was more thanks for his years of making Hollywood millions than it was an indicator of any artistic depth. What Williams needed to do, if he was going to be taken seriously by the serious crowd, was to overcome his reputation as a sweaty, hairy, hilarious, spazzed-out cokehead.
And so he took a part in his friend Danny DeVito's Death to Smoochy, a dark comedy that was such a smart and classy exercise in bad taste that it died at the box office. Next came the role of a killer in Insomnia, which did better. More important, during his brief time onscreen, Williams proved that he could out-act the caricature that is now Al Pacino.
But it is One Hour Photo that gives Williams an entire film to carry. And it's different enough from all his previous work to give viewers a chance to see him anew, without automatically making "nanoo nanoo" jokes. He plays Sy, an aging, soft-spoken photo clerk at a big-box superstore.
Of course, Sy is also creepily obsessed with one of the families that frequents the store, and decides to take justice into his own hands when he discovers that the father may be having an affair. It's paranoid scary fun -- after all, this is still a film that wants to succeed at the box office. But One Hour Photo's biggest success is Sy. His life is clearly empty, and his routines behind the photo counter mask an existential horror that is raggedly banal. Sy is an embodiment of the hollowness you can feel in your stomach when you contemplate Wal-Mart.
Williams plays Sy so marvelously that he transforms One Hour Photo from a beefed-up movie-of-the-week to a serious film. He's helped, certainly, by Michael Manson's soulless art direction of Sy's store, and director Mark Romanek's bleak pacing. But it is Williams who cuts to the dry marrow of modern life. Perhaps it was his years walking the razor of sincere comedy, or maybe it was the drugs -- but something taught Williams about despair. And because he is a true comedian -- a classic clown -- he gifts this despair with grace, making it universal, and frighteningly serious.