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What’s Wrong With Sy, The Photo Guy? A Review of One-Hour Photo

By Elaine Cassel

One Hour Photo is a tension-filled, dramatic story that slowly unwinds to explain what’s wrong with Sy Parrish, the best one-hour film processor imaginable. Pychodynamic and learning theories help explain his suffering and behaviors.

The wildly manic Robin Williams, a comic genius, has one of his greatest dramatic film roles in this movie packed with psychology. Movie-goers who need action-packed films to keep their interest will probably not warm to One Hour Photo until late in the movie, when the sources of Sy Parrish's behavior are revealed. But psychology students who go into the movie focused on Sy’s behaviors and looking for clues to his pathology will be rewarded as their sleuthing proves them right.

It’s not giving away much to disclose that Sy is a lonely, somber guy, joyless except when he comes in contact with his customers. In terms of customer service at the Savmart (like a Wal-Mart), he is without peer. He cheats the company here and there, but the customers love him and stand in line for his film-developing skills.

Sy has developed a special affinity for one family. Some might say he is a voyeur, though not necessarily in sexual terms. There are some aspects of stalking in his character. But the best way to describe his affinity for the Yorkin family is to apply psychodynamic—especially Freudian—theory. Sy intensely identifies—to the point of near delusion—with the Yorkin family. An imaginary family photo in which he is a happy member, along with a daydream sequence in which he pads around their gorgeous home as "Uncle Sy," suggests intense wish-fulfillment fantasies.

Nina and Will Yorkin were big picture-takers; Sy had developed their photos from the early days of the couple’s relationship and the birth of their son, Jakob. The wall of Yorkin family photos in his home—a mural that depicts the family in chronological order--indicates how deep—and sick—is the identification and obsession with them. But his attempts to befriend them come off as well meaning, not dark and sinister. And the viewer can be forgiven for starting to wonder how "innocent" is Sy’s interest in the family.

But that interest could have rolled along without problems, probably, if a roll of film brought in by someone else did not reveal that there was a threat to the Yorkin family—a threat which we now sense is felt by Sy as an attack on "his" family—the loving, happy family (or so he thought) that he did not have as a child.

With what were probably mixed motives, Sy forces the family to confront the threat from within and, in so doing, exposes himself as a threat as well. Having lost his job, his connection to the family becomes more than just making an extra set of their family photos and plastering his wall with them. His tactics resort to more physically intrusive methods.

What he does to punish the father—and even the entire family—is revealed at the end in the presence of an unrealistically empathic cop. Classical, operant, and learning theories are plausible explanations for the officer's question that opens the film, "What did you have against Will Yorkin?" And, of course, the psychodynamic concepts of revictimization and death wish come into play as well.

The obviously kind-hearted law enforcement officer mirrors the emotions that most viewers feel at the end. But psychology students will, in addition, feel that Sy’s behaviors are perfectly plausible, given his tragic past.

Aside from being a great story that will appeal to students of human behavior, the film showcases the depth of Robin Williams’ dramatic abilities. Sy is surely his most serious dramatic role, and his quietest. His voice-over narrative is delivered in an emotionless, methodical monotone, adding to the building tension that ends in a tragic resolution.

Movies could play a more productive role in explaining psychopathology if the sources of twisted behavior were explained realistically and compassionately, as they are here. One Hour Photo is a rewarding study of abnormal behavior and one that psychology students should appreciate, if not enjoy. It leaves us wondering, and caring, now that we know what’s wrong with Sy, what will happen to Sy.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

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