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movies: Dark Focus

Robin Williams exposes his many talents as a developing psycho.

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Sporting oddly colored, closely trimmed pale hair and nondescript clothes, Williams plays Sy Parrish, a workaday drone toiling behind the quick-process counter of the local Savemart. Appropriately meek and unassuming, Williams' Sy is so much the personification of bland that he's nearly invisible. And he's treated as such, by his martinet of a boss (Gary Cole), who's perfectly outfitted in tone-on-tone, working class, middle management polyester, as well as by the customers who drop off their film with a perfunctory nod or empty smile.

It doesn't take long to realize that Sy is starved for human interaction. But along with our initial sympathy for his emotional isolation comes this queasy feeling that something else is going on in the mind of this tightly wound fellow. Why does he seem more interested in the Yorkins, a photogenic family of three who have been bringing their film to Sy for development for years? Why is he risking his job by giving young Jake Yorkin (Dylan Smith) an impromptu birthday present? Why does he swiftly outmaneuver his co-worker to wait on Jake's mom, Nina (Connie Nielsen), and chat her up as if a friend?

Perhaps most disconcerting — why is Sy starting to sit in his car outside the Yorkins' suburban home?

Besides Williams' coolly minimalist performance, part of what makes "One Hour Photo" so unnerving is writer/director Mark Romanek's meditations on the idea of photographs — on capturing the most personal and private of moments in a snapshot, and then putting them into the hands of a stranger without a second thought.

"No one takes a photograph of something they want to forget," muses Sy as he works his way through the film of his customers. One woman only snaps pictures of her cats; an insurance investigator shoots only photos of crumpled cars; a geeky young man dabbles in amateur porn. They all scroll past the red lights of Sy's quick-print machine in a dizzying array of human emotions, emotions Sy feels more and more cut off from. When the sheer volume of others' happy moments seem unbearable even to us, the preternaturally smiling Yorkins appear in his machine.

But soon they, too, trigger something darker in Sy's psyche.

Even more so than in "Insomnia," Williams drains away his usual manic delivery and cheery twinkling to craft a disturbing portrait of a lonely man starved for affection. Although his behavior eventually veers into the criminal, Sy never loses our sympathy. There's often such sadness in Williams' gaze that we can't help but be touched by Sy and his situation. So completely does Williams immerse himself in the character of Sy, his acting against type is sure to generate some buzz come Oscar time.

Unfortunately, Romanek tries to tidy up everything at the end, settling for a too-easy explanation of why Sy is the way he is. But "One Hour Photo" remains an impressive film debut (Romanek previously made music videos and TV ads), suggesting a flair for the telling detail and an ultra-cool style. Even the music has a creeped out feel to it, occasionally sounding dissonant enough to be something playing only in Sy's head.

Romanek's deliberate pacing may be off-putting for some, and others may find it too reminiscent of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," but "One Hour Photo" remains worth your while because of Williams' performance. Although not picture-perfect, "One Hour Photo" is a disquieting surprise. S ****

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