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Mark Romanek makes a great bad man of Robin

Then Robin Williams was America's favorite funnyman in films like Mrs. Doubtfire, it always felt a little strange admitting that the guy seemed kinda creepy. When he "got serious" in irritating tearjerkers like Hook and What Dreams May Come, it was certainly in vogue to proclaim him annoying, but few people seemed to admit that there was a potentially scary vibe to him in those roles as well. Maybe it was the knowledge that he was clearly repressing his natural hyperactive self, or that weird little grin he would make right before the tears started to flow, but in such parts he came across less as benevolently bereaved and more as a potential psychopath. His vaguely repressive meekness resembled that of the archetypal serial killer who, neighbors later recall, seemed like such a nice, normal guy. When, oh when, would someone else see this potential in him and finally cast Williams as the creep he was born to play?

It's done. As photo developer Seymour "Sy" Parrish in One Hour Photo, Robin Williams just may have found the greatest role of his career. Playing beautifully to both fans and haters, Williams's Sy is a character you don't know whether to hug or go vigilante on, a balance Bob Hoskins couldn't quite capture in Felicia's Journey. The name Seymour may be a bit too obvious -- it was also the name of Steve Buscemi's less dangerous, equally pathetic character in Ghost World -- but that's almost a moot point, since he goes by Sy. Sy's the sort of guy you see every day and seldom think twice about: the middle-aged man working minimum-wage customer-service jobs alongside high school kids, a man who has not only resigned himself to such a life but even maintains an inner monologue in which he convinces himself of the great and essential service he's doing the world, in this case by developing its photos. At least until everyone switches to digital cameras.

As anyone who's ever worked in a similar job knows, there's lots of downtime in which to gossip, daydream and generally talk about what great things you could otherwise do. In Sy's case, that involves imagining himself as a member of the Yorkin (read: "your kin") family, whose matriarch, Nina (Mission to Mars and Gladiator's Connie Nielsen, finally in a good movie), regularly drops off the family snapshots. There doesn't appear to be anything sexual about Sy's fixation, except perhaps on the most sublimated of levels. He merely wants to be perceived as "Uncle Sy" to Nina's son Jake (newcomer Dylan Smith).

Nothing too unusual there -- many families refer to their extended circle of friends as uncles and aunts. Only Sy's a little too friendly -- follow-you-home-when-you're-not-looking kind of friendly. Obsessive, also: Since the Yorkins first started developing photos at the SavMart, Sy's been saving duplicate prints for himself, which he pastes into a giant collage on a large, otherwise empty wall in his apartment. So when the family threatens to reveal itself to him as not so perfect, something's going to give, and the pent-up repression so apparent in Williams's face might just explode.

The movie is all Williams's show, as are most movies he stars in, but director Mark Romanek, best known for Nine Inch Nails's "Closer" video, makes the sets stars as well -- from the antiseptic SavMart to Sy's empty apartment (way too large to be affordable on a discount-store salary, but you roll with it because it's symbolic of his empty life). Romanek even manages to get perhaps the creepiest shot ever of someone ascending an escalator, though credit should also go to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth of Fight Club, a movie as grungy as this is sterile. Composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, who've scored all of Tom Tykwer's films, did great work here as well; in an age of bombastic symphonic scores, theirs is modern and freaky, yet unintrusive.

For those disappointed with Williams's other psycho turns this year, in the cluttered Death to Smoochy and the low- payoff Insomnia, fear not: This is the one to see. Some may be disappointed in the film's ambiguous ending, but the more you think about it, the less of a cheat it feels, especially when one considers how cut and dried a studio would have forced it to be based on test scores from 15-year-old boys. One Hour Photo may be too "indie" to earn Williams another Oscar, but his ill will hunting should stick with you much longer than anything in that old Matt Damon movie.

 
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