Photo by Francois Duhamel

NOTHING SEPARATES THE HAVES FROM THE have-nots like new technology. In the current comedy Lovely & Amazing, the penultimate sign of the Catherine Keener character's downward mobility in an age of digital cameras and Photoshop software is her employment at — good heavens — a one-hour photo store. And as Hollywood's lust for instantaneous distribution threatens to turn 35mm film into a relic, who wants to bet that the mad slashers of reflexive thrillers in the all-digital era won't be out-of-work negative cutters and disgruntled union projectionists?

In the meantime, we have One Hour Photo's aptly named Seymour Parrish (Robin Williams), an eagle-eyed but mortally outdated customer-care specialist in the photo department of the Savmart discount store. We know Sy is a tad too invested in the old magic when he complains to the local AGFA tech about a “plus-three blue shift” in the processing machinery. (Hasn't this guy heard of Anti-Aliasing™?) Meanwhile, Sy's obsessive concern for his customers — which extends well beyond their own satisfaction with the standard 3-by-5s and 4-by-6s — seems rather extreme in the case of the Yorkins, Nina (Connie Nielsen) and Will (Michael Vartan), whose soccer son, Jake (Dylan Smith), has just turned 9. For some reason, this well-off, even fashionable young couple haven't yet switched to digital (the best explanation is that there'd be no movie), and regularly pull their Mercedes SUV into the Savmart lot to drop off their latest rolls with “Sy the photo guy.” Maybe, following some retro, Norman Rockwell impulse, Nina is just charmed by Sy's evident fondness for young Jake. Still, when the Savmart employee reaches across the counter to muss the cute kid's hair and call him “buddy,” it's clear there's something wrong with this picture.

In the press kit, music-video visionary turned feature writer-director Mark Romanek immodestly situates One Hour Photo among the “'lonely-man' films of the '70s”: The Tenant (lonely man cleans house), Taxi Driver (lonely man cleans scum off streets), The Passenger (lonely man trades places with dead man), The Conversation (lonely man hears tell of murder). Certainly Williams' near-masochistically introverted star turn echoes those films' cris de coeur, predicated as it is on awkwardly burying every emotion behind an albino exterior that blends in eerily with Savmart's fluorescent-lit white-on-white décor. (The actor thinned his hair and dyed it blond for the part.) Nevertheless, and despite Sy's somewhat portentous voice-overs (“No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget,” he says), Romanek's initially sterile, eventually sordid movie more resembles a rarefied variant of the nanny-stalks-yuppies shocker The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. (Call it The Finger That Smudges the Photo.)

Even before Romanek's put-upon protagonist has resorted to bringing a hunting knife home from work (yikes!), the film's sympathy for its lonely man stops shy of identification. Sy, whose careful routine involves eating dinner by himself in a coffee shop, at one point fantasizes that he's an adopted member of the Yorkin clan: Walking into their tastefully furnished house uninvited, “Uncle Sy” cracks open a beer, puts his feet up, and enjoys a ball game until they come home and greet him with picture-perfect smiles. (His dream is the family's nightmare.) But the more indelibly subjective sequence in One Hour Photo — and it's a doozy — finds Nina and Jake sending Sy their “good thoughts” at bedtime, whereupon Romanek cuts to a shot of the clerk in his cramped apartment suddenly tilting his head like a puppy hearing a high-pitched sound. Has the Yorkins' goodness reached out and touched this poor man from the warm safety of their privilege? Or is the photo guy — who keeps a creepy collage of the family's memories taped to his wall — merely a projection of their upper-middle-class guilt?

Whatever the case, One Hour Photo doesn't exactly come off as a movie for beleaguered discount-store employees; for one thing, it's being distributed through Fox's boutique division as a specialty item straight from Sundance. (Attention, Restoration Hardware shoppers.) True, Williams took a salary cut to play a working stiff in a modestly scaled project — a way of lending a little Method to his madness, perhaps. (Or maybe it's just the latest trend in psychologically tough times: One Hour Photo debuted at Sundance in a year that also saw Matt Damon slacking his way through the arid indie desert of Gerry, and Jennifer Aniston stooping to stock her own Savmart in The Good Girl.) But while the most manic A-lister this side of Jim Carrey clearly relishes swinging to the other pole here, his slightly hunched slope through the wide aisles capturing an energy-conserving clock puncher's profound humility in the face of commerce, the photo guy never develops far beyond what the Yorkins (or we?) might have imagined. In the interests of preserving “suspense,” Romanek keeps Sy a cipher up until the final scene, whose didactic diagnosis rivals the smug shrink's explanation of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho — but with none of the Master's wit.

SPEAKING OF ROUTINE ANALYSIS, THE MOST OBvious thing one could say about Romanek — and it wouldn't be much off the mark — is that his background in creating ingenious music-video set pieces has naturally failed to nurture any talent he may possess for defining character. I mean, after convincing Madonna to wear her hair short in the “Rain” clip, what's left to define? Taken together, Romanek's videos (two of which are in MoMA's permanent collection) make up one flamboyantly conflicted musical; like One Hour Photo, but with far more flair, they vacillate between heightened renderings of heaven and hell while musing on how little it takes to tweak a star's image. Hell for the videographer is Nine Inch Nails, depicted most famously through the punishing barrage of “Closer” (e.g., a crucified monkey, a spinning pig's head, Trent Reznor), while heaven is Lenny Kravitz, whose sci-fi recording studio in “If You Can't Say No” affords the occasional peep at a gyrating Milla Jovovich. (Voyeurism is base-level entertainment in the Romanek oeuvre.) Somewhere in between — consider it purgatory — is a half-naked and pigtailed Fiona Apple snapping still photographs in “Criminal,” presumably as a good defense against charges that the clip's borderline kid-porn style was not of the bad, bad girl's own making.

Though One Hour Photo's surreal shock-cut to Sy bleeding from his eyes is closer to “Closer” than “Criminal” (and more a sign of the filmmaker's mounting desperation than the photo guy's), it's the latter video that resonates strongest in the feature. Which isn't to say that Sy (or Romanek) ever pushes in for an extreme close-up of a half-dressed young Jake: The store clerk's nervous offer of a supercool action figure at a deep discount is about as racy as it gets, thank God. Rather, it's the aesthetic kinship between Apple's jailbait shutterbug and Jake — both of whom reveal an avant-garde knack for framing the plastic-bag variety of American beauty — that pegs Romanek as an auteur in more ways than one. “Criminal” takes pains to place Apple's routine rec-room subjects — a faux-wood chair, a stray plastic shoe — just slightly off-center so as to make them worthy of inclusion at, say, MoMA. Similarly, One Hour Photo turns on Sy's recognition that Jake's work with a disposable camera is indispensable for its canted angle on the ordinary. And what do you know? The real revelation of the movie's final shots is that both Sy and Romanek share that same gift. They're artists.

In this way, One Hour Photo means to show solidarity with both the child and the workingman. Don't underestimate the dude behind the counter, it says. Underneath that blue polyester vest may lie the heart of a virtuoso. Still, Romanek doesn't appear quite ready to turn the photo guy loose on the latest Beck clip. Like Max Cady in Cape Fear, the prototypical prole-stalks-bourgeois thriller, Sy is employed simply to scare the family members silly and, in so doing, make them stronger. Call it an exercise in threat management, free with the purchase of a photo album — or a movie ticket. Indeed, no one seeing One Hour Photo will continue to consider 35mm a safe choice for the family. It's a full-service movie.

ONE HOUR PHOTO | Written and directed by MARK ROMANEK Produced by CHRISTINE VACHON, PAMELA KOFFLER and STAN WLODKOWSKI | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures At ArcLight Hollywood and Cinerama Dome, Landmark's Regent

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