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A 'photo guy' gets a little too up close and personal

Picture this É

Seymour Parrish, aka 'Sy, the photo guy,' inspects the latest set of prints from the best calibrated processing equipment in any mall photo shop in the city. He takes a lot of pride in his work. He wants everything to be perfect.

Focus.

The Yorkin family, Sy's favorite people. They're, well, perfect. Lovely home, happy faces, bright colors. Sy does more than process their pictures; he sees himself in them, one of the family. Picture perfect.

Flash.

But a different picture develops when Sy makes a disturbing discovery in, of all things, a batch of someone else's photos. Reality isn't as perfectly calibrated as Sy's equipment, or his imagination. With his tightly framed illusions threatened, what is Sy to do?

Snap.

'One Hour Photo' is a precisely composed character study that gradually becomes a crawly thriller as the roll winds up. But writer-director Mark Romanek is less interested in shock and violence than he is in atmosphere and apprehension.

And there's an auto-rewind function. As played by Robin Williams, Sy Parrish bears what you might call an unfocused similarity to the invisible men of such 1970s classics as 'Taxi Driver' and 'The Conversation.' They look in a mirror and see blur, faint thumbprint smudges on the glossy prints of life.

Seymour Parrish (Wait, zoom in on that name: 'See more perish?' Nahh É) is one of those guys who might seem innocuous enough for the short time you encounter him. You might sense something a trifle odd, but then you don't really have to deal with him beyond that little corner of the Savmart. It's not like he goes home with you or anything.

So, Romanek and Williams take us home with Sy. Not a pretty picture. Neat, carefully composed, but maybe a little sterile, almost abstract in the feeling of emptiness. The picture is squared-away; the subject is off-center.

'One Hour Photo' is set in an anonymous suburbia that could be Anywhere, U.S.A. The Savmart is a suburb of Sy's psyche. You've never seen one of these places so anally symmetrical and antiseptic. The world of the Yorkins (zoom in again: 'Your kin?' Hmm É) is warm, richly colored, comfortable. It's a mirage.

It's almost as if one of those urban loner protagonists of the '70s had relocated to the arid suburban wasteland of Todd Solondz's 'Happiness' and 'Storytelling.' But if Romanek lacks the mastery of Scorsese and Coppola, he also lacks Solondz's apparent contempt for his subjects. There may be something overly clinical and airless in Romanek's approach, but at least the people don't seem like lab rats.

It is finally the director's Sy-entific approach, his stylistic precision and consistency, that carry the film past the occasional qualms it may induce.

And Williams, still dealing in the welcome creepiness of 'Insomnia' after the treacle-coated terrors of 'Patch Adams' and 'Bicentennial Man,' may inspire genuine sleep deprivation here. His Sy Parrish is a truly spooky creation, and complexities emerge from the performance like spiders from a crack.

Don't expect any Kodak moments here. This is a troubled exposure.