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I’ve never been a fan of Robin Williams the comedian. He was always a little too much for me. Whenever he’s on a talk show, he seems just a tad too eager to please.

Much has been made of Williams’ recent streak of dark film roles. He played a murderer in Insomnia and a deranged kiddie-show host in Death to Smoochy. This amuses me. He might make most people laugh but he has always scared me a little bit — like being around someone who has been through a terrible tragedy yet feels compelled to crack a joke every two seconds.

I really don’t see why anyone would be surprised that Williams is really good at playing people who are, in the words of a politically incorrect radio talk-show host, "a couple of French fries short of a Happy Meal."

This time out, in director Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, Williams plays Seymour Parrish. Sy, as his customers call him, is an affable but shy manager of a photo department at a Wal-Mart/Target-type store. When Sy is not working, he’s dining or watching movies alone in his inhumanly pristine apartment.

Whenever Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) and her son Jake (Dylan Smith) drop off their snapshots, Sy feels a familial connection with them. He is so obsessed with the Yorkins and the unattainable (for him) perfection they represent that he has an entire wall devoted to surreptitiously made copies of their photos. When Sy accidentally discovers something that threatens to break up this perfect family, he takes matters into his own hands.

I’m not sure which was harder to swallow: a) the fact that Sy is so meticulous, he notices when a hue is off by a percentage point but can’t figure out he might get fired by duplicating the Yorkins’ photos, or b) the fact that his manager takes that long to catch him. There is also some overly creepy business at the end to show us that Sy has really lost it. Granted, the dude’s a sick puppy, but nothing leading up to it explains why he would go as far as he does.

Williams is so much the chameleon that he is at his best only when the movie lets him. At times, we are treated to a poignant, if somewhat icky, portrait of a sad but deceptively competent loner who inadvertently taps into others’ hidden sadness. When Romanek veers into Fatal Attraction territory, he drags Williams with him. When he can keep the movie and his star in check, One Hour Photo is an efficient and even a touching little thriller.

One Hour Photo
Rated R
Opening tomorrow at Ritz theaters
Two-and-a-half reels out of four

Video Pick

Rated PG-13
Available on VHS Tuesday

Previously available only on DVD, the film features Jim Caviezel as a New York City cop who is able to communicate with his deceased father, a New York City firefighter, when he finds his dad’s old ham radio. The movie nicely manages to avoid its Twilight Zone tendencies to become both a neat thriller and a warm and fuzzy exposition on the importance of father-son connections.

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