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Picture Perfect 

Robin Williams’ career comes into focus in creepy drama

Who would have ever guessed that at this point in his life, Robin Williams would be born again? I'm not referring to his personal religious convictions -- he could be a "Moonie" for all I know or care -- but rather the complete overhaul that he has recently applied to his career.

The dirty secret regarding Mr. Williams is that, despite his standing as an out-of-control funnyman, he's usually most interesting when he's playing it straight. It's not hard to overact, as he's done on oh-so-many occasions (am I the only one who thinks his performance in 1991's overrated The Fisher King was a crock, and that co-star Jeff Bridges out-acted him right off the screen?). What's harder is to subtly underplay, to invest a character with meaning via hushed tones and furtive glances rather than bedpans on the feet and flubber in the pants. From his sensitive turn in The World According to Garp through his brilliant cameo in Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again to his Oscar-winning gig in Good Will Hunting, Williams has repeatedly demonstrated that he's at his finest when he's not insisting that the whole world embrace him and his wacky shenanigans. Perhaps that's why I've never jumped on the Williams bandwagon (well, aside from the fact that he's made some truly awful movies): He's always struck me as creepy rather than cuddly.

This dark side of the former Mork from Ork is getting quite the workout in 2002: He began the year by playing a psychotic children's show host in Death to Smoochy and followed that by essaying the role of a chilly murder suspect in the gripping Insomnia. Yet his best performance in ages -- perhaps of his career -- can be found in the new psychological thriller One Hour Photo, which finds the actor expressing himself in a startling manner never before exhibited during his 25-year film tenure.

Williams plays Sy Parrish, a quiet man who has spent years working behind the photo counter at the local Savmart. Sy takes great pride in his skills as a photo developer, not only having long mastered the technical aspects of the job but also having given considerable thought to its philosophical overtures (as Sy's voiceover notes at one point, if people's lives were examined solely on the evidence of their photo albums, "a record of only the happy moments in our lives," it would be reasonable to assume that everybody led rapturous, carefree existences).

Sy treats all his customers with care, but he saves the most affection for Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), a lovely woman married to Will (Michael Vartan), a laid-back business owner (the type who doubtless orchestrates board meetings in jeans and tennis shoes). Sy probably has a crush on Nina, but even more, he has a fondness for what he perceives as the perfect family unit. For years, Nina has dropped off the family photos for development at his counter, and through these snapshots, Sy has watched their sensitive young son Jake (Dylan Smith) grow up, has seen the idyllic vacations the three have taken together, and has been privy to the various birthday parties and other assorted celebrations that the Yorkins have enjoyed over time. But what Sy doesn't know is that there's no such thing as the "perfect family," and what the Yorkins don't know is that Sy isn't some harmless store employee but rather a lonely, twisted individual who has decided the time is right to allow himself to bask in the Yorkins' radiant, familial glow. Feeling that he's become close enough to the family that they should start calling him "Uncle Sy," this emotionally damaged individual starts to work his way into the everyday routines of the York in clan, a decision that reaches a frightening conclusion once Sy notices the hypocrisies that rest underneath the faux-reality projected on those 4-by-6 photos.

One Hour Photo was written and directed by Mark Romanek, making his motion picture debut after a career as a highly regarded music video helmer. Yeah, I know: At this point, the volume of MTV-cogs-turned-movie-directors seemingly outnumbers the amount of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yet Romanek is one of the few worth watching as he continues to develop his career. One Hour Photo isn't your everyday, run-of-the-mill thriller, nor is it merely a psychological profile of a twisted individual -- a less bloody Henry... Portrait of a Serial Killer, as it were. What's most interesting about the film is how it constantly alters our opinions of Sy Parrish, sometimes from scene to scene. The entire movie establishes a wonderfully creepy mood -- it's always embarrassing (in real life or in cinema) to watch a socially inept individual strive to make a rather overbearing connection -- and this film milks that situation for all it's worth, not only through Sy's bumbling efforts with the Yorkins but also in the manner in which it steadily builds the possibility that Sy may be a man capable of a great burst of violence. And yet, just as we're potentially ready to write him off as yet another one-note movie psycho, Romanek and Williams work in tandem to insure that the character isn't given the short shrift by audiences. There are points in this film in which Sy becomes an incredibly sympathetic person -- and even an oddly moral one at other junctions -- and this adds a degree of complexity to the proceedings that in turn raises the level of the entire film.

To say that One Hour Photo is an unsettling film is certainly accurate (get a load of how Sy decorates his living room wall), yet it's also worth noting that the ambience isn't simply one of dread but of sadness as well -- a quality not usually associated with pictures about nutcases. But, like The Good Girl (which, incidentally, also featured a character whose beatific vision of the "perfect family" gets soiled by the specter of infidelity), One Hour Photo places its protagonist in the middle of a gargantuan retail superstore and then watches as unfulfilled expectations continue to spiral downward at a dizzying rate. The notion that the spirit is allowed to starve in the middle of these havens of all-encompassing consumerism might merely be an aside on the agendas of these films' respective makers, but regardless, the picture it creates is anything but pretty.

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