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'One Hour Photo' is nearly picture perfect.

One Hour Photo is almost great, which is an incredibly refreshing change of pace from the tidal wave of mediocrities that have been foisted on filmgoers of late.

However, and this is scary, Photo stars Robin Williams. In fact, Williams is in almost every scene. It's entirely his movie.

Let's face it, "Robin Williams" and "great movie" go together about as well as "Presbyterian" and "terrorist." (My apologies to any Presbyterian terrorist I may have offended). In fact, a lot of critics would probably have a hard time even beginning to forgive Robin Williams for just having been Robin Williams for the last 15 years.

But I'm willing to put the horrifying experience of watching Bicentennial Man behind me and move on. Which is to say, and I think this is the greatest piece of praise I have ever leveled at Robin Williams: He doesn't ruin this movie.

In fact, he's actually pretty good in it.

Williams plays Seymour "Sy" Parrish, who works in the titular one-hour photo lab. His name is "Seymour" because he sees more, see? In fact, he's all about seeing, about the image on the surface, and the one thing he doesn't like is to be confronted with what lies beneath that image.

Sy is obsessed with a young family who, to him, epitomize the perfect life that he's been denied. While he whiles away his lonely hours staring blankly at a TV screen, they seem to lead a perfect life of familial bliss, at least according to the photos they have developed.

It's only in the moments when Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), the mother of the family, comes in to drop off her photos, that Sy comes to life. He transforms from an emotionless cipher to a toadying, bizarrely cheery subordinate. His avuncular attitude towards Nina's son Jakob (Dylan Smith) is especially creepy, hanging just back from becoming Catholic priest-like in its excessive interest.

But this is why this picture works in exactly the way that Williams's movies usually don't: He doesn't cross the line. The performance is almost inhumanly restrained. In movie lingo, this is called "not giving it all away." Thus, later in the film, when Sy finally shows emotion, it has some force. Compare and contrast Patch Adams, where the quest for pathos causes every moment to overflow with bathos.

Williams gets a lot of help in his characterization from his makeup and hair. Normally, makeup artists and hairstylists are not called upon to produce salient story points, but in One Hour Photo Williams has been dyed an odd orange color, with unnaturally blonde hair to match.

Director Mark Romanek uses this as part of an overall obsession with clean, bright colors. The movie features long, unbroken surfaces of white or yellow or orange, everything polished with a fluorescent artificiality that emphasizes the level of mental hygiene that the sexless Sy seeks in his world. The cinematography is not only an efficient part of the story and character, it's also incredibly beautiful. Given that Romanek made his name directing Nine Inch Nails videos, the quiet, unobtrusive nature of the shooting is a big surprise. Most video-directors-turned-movie-directors wind up making brainless, two-hour long montages of explosions, butts and exploding butts (see, for example, Charlie's Angels). Romanek, though, seems to have gotten out of the video world with his cerebral cortex still in full-function mode.

Even the small character points in the plot show a thoughtful subtlety. In one of the most telling sequences, Sy sits watching The Simpsons on TV. Romanek has chosen one of the funniest Simpsons segments, so that the movie-theater audience automatically erupts in laughter. Sy, though, stares blankly at the screen, as though watching television were not about the content of the program, but only about the need to look at pictures.

It's because of the care of such moments that the false notes stand out so much. For example, at one point Sy begins a voice-over by saying "The Oxford English Dictionary says that the first instance of the word 'snapshot' ... " Sorry, but this is not a guy who reads the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, his house is conspicuously absent of books. When he notes that Nina Yorkin is reading a particular book, he buys it, but only pulls it out when she's watching. As soon as she walks off, he returns it to his bag and commences staring blankly at what he likes best: images, not words.

It's only these images, whether on TV, in photos, or in person, that Sy is interested in. Only the visual surface counts, and when he finds that the images of the happy family he loves don't match their real lives, he enacts a weird, misdirected revenge fantasy, but one that is, in itself, only about images.

Which is, of course, a more than fitting theme for a film. What's nice about One Hour Photo, as compared to your average movie with a message, is that it's never spelled out in flaming capital letters for you. Romanek, unlike, say, Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard or Robert Zemeckis or any of the other Academy-friendly middlebrow movie mavens, assumes that his audience is not composed of drooling idiots who want to feel smart, but aren't quite capable. Rather, he uses cinema the way it should be used, placing emphasis on the power of the visuals to convey concepts. I wish One Hour Photo was a little more perfect, but it's definitely one of the best movies of the year.

One Hour Photo
Rated NR

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