Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) cares deeply about making sure that the snapshots he develops at the SaveMart are as perfect as the family life he dreams that they represent. He relishes the glimpses he gets of parties, Christmas mornings, vacations, and other happy occasions, understanding that it is only the good times that people want to preserve for their scrapbooks. “No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” He knows that the first thing people save in a fire after all the people are out of the house is the family photographs, their best hope of imperishable memories.
Sy’s customers don’t just give him family pictures. He also develops photos of crumpled fenders for an insurance claims specialist and nude photos taken by amateur pornographers. But what captures Sy’s attention is the peek inside lives of vibrancy, intimacy, connection, warmth, and affection. And the family that seems most perfect to him is Will and Nina Yorkin and their nine-year-old son, Jake.
Inside the Yorkin house, though, Will accuses Nina of wanting her life to be like the pictures she looks at in magazines, as entranced by the appearance of perfection as Sy is. Nina accuses Will of neglecting Jake and being distant from her.
Will does not pay enough attention to his family. Sy pays too much.
Writer/director Mark Romanek shows Sy and his small corner of the cavernous SaveMart in the blandest of neutral colors with cool undertones. The Yorkins, in person and in the photos meticulously color-balanced by Sy, are shown in warm, bright, vivid colors. In the movie’s most powerful sequence, Sy leaves the SaveMart to go to his apartment, furnished as sparely and generically as a motel room. Everything about him is beige, even his hair. Then the camera pulls back and we see one huge splash of glowing color, a mosaic of bright photos covering most of a pale wall. They are all of the Yorkins, going back to before Jake was born.
Another customer’s photo order gives Sy evidence that Will Yorkin does not appreciate his family. And Sy’s boss (Gary Cole) fires him for making hundreds of prints that are unaccounted for. He dreams of walking down endless, colorless, empty aisles at SaveMart, the bare shelves rising behind him like the wings of an avenging angel and his eyes spurting dark red blood.
The movie begins with Sy having his picture taken, full-face and profile, in a police station (“Do you have your own lab?” he asks on the way to the interrogation room). A detective (“ER’s” Eriq La Salle) tells him that they have developed his pictures and they are “not pretty.” So we know from the beginning that something bad will happen.
Romanek’s roots in music video show. This is his first feature film. He handles mood and tone well. The attraction of the material is obvious – as a director, he is something of a voyeur himself, obsessing about perfect pictures. But the result is that the movie is too much about images and surfaces, more artificial itself than the artificiality it attempts to depict. It’s not about anything real. It’s about what Romanek imagines middle America to be like.
The attraction of the material for Williams is obvious, too -– the utterly repressed character is the other end of the scale from his own personality and his best-known performances. But inside every comedian is a lot of hostility, and Williams uses his well to create both pathos and menace. Overall, the movie’s logical lapses (if both members of a romantic couple are in the supposedly intimate photo, who was taking the picture?), odd conclusion, and too-easy explanation keep it from being completely successful. Like Sy, Romanek seems to have lost the boundaries between the observer and the image.
Parents should know that this is an intensely scary thriller with severe peril (though not graphic), nudity, and sexual references and situations, including adultery and child molestation.
Families who see this movie should talk about the role that photographs play in their own lives. Would someone looking at your family’s photographs get an accurate picture of your family? They should also talk about whether we do enough to pay attention to people who are less fortunate and may be lonely.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the brilliant thriller, Manhunter, the original movie featuring the Hannibal Lecter character (played by Brian Cox). Its remake, “Red Dragon,” with Anthony Hopkins and Edward Norton is scheduled to be released in 2002. They should also listen to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” a song about “all the lonely people,” including the title character, who was “buried along with her name; nobody came.”