Dir: Mark Romanek. US. 2002. 96 mins.

Actor Robin Williams gets a wonderful opportunity to stretch (to use Hollywood jargon) in Mark Romanek's feature directorial debut, One Hour Photo, playing a serious dramatic role that deviates from the two screen images that have defined his career: as a funny, wiry man in broad farces (Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage) and as a sensitive and noble messiah in dramas (The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting). Unfortunately, William's impressive performance is contained in a vastly uneven film, whose first half is an intriguing anatomy of urban alienation, but whose second deteriorates into a preposterous thriller a la Fatal Attraction with its subplot of stalking and revenge. Williams' impressive, uncharacteristic work should be used as marketing hook, but distributor Fox Searchlight will need strong critical support to appeal to audiences beyond the independent milieu with a pretentious piece that leaves a sour after-taste at the end of the film.

It may not have been the best idea to relate the escalating, debilitating obsession of a lonely man in one long flashback, but that's the strategy chosen by writer-director Romanek. A music video and commercials director, he begins the story in a police station, where Seymour "Sy" Parrish (Williams) is interrogated by a sympathetic policeman after being arrested.

A fastidious photographic developer, Sy works in the local supermarket, Savmarket, a bland, sterile environment. Defying norms that govern interactions between employees and customers in bureaucratic organisations, Sy goes out of his way to be friendly and personable to the regulars who frequent his store, always smiling and making an effort to remember their names. He also shows a special interest in one family, the Yorkins, that seems to represent the ideal unit: father-husband Will (Vartan), a handsome yuppie, his wife Nina (Nielsen), and their nine-year old son, Jake (Smith), who immediately takes to Sy, nicknaming him Uncle Sy.

As a writer, Romanek is obviously inspired by seminal 1970s films such as Roman Polanski's The Tenant, Coppola's The Conversation, and Scorsese's Taxi Driver, all of which were studies of isolated men who become victims of their cold urban environment and the isolatory nature of their professions. And indeed, in the first, striking reel, we observe the solitary habits of Sy after work: cooking dinner, eating by himself, watching TV. A mysterious man, Sy seems to have no family, no friends, and no real emotions - some vague clues are later provided about his turbulent childhood.

It doesn't take long to realise that Sy is living vicariously through the fantasies he has developed about pitch-perfect families like the Yorkins. In his day-dreams, Sy imagines himself in the Yorkins' home, socialising with them, handing generous presents, visiting Jake at football games and so on. Back at home, he has printed for himself all of the Yorkins' photos, placing them on a hidden wall which he observes with both envy and admiration.

The drama changes gears when, in an element that Romanek borrows from Antonioni's Blow Up, Sy develops a photo, given to him by a female customer, which reveals Will to be an adulterous husband. With nothing better to do, Sy begins stalking Nina and the boy, as well as Will and his mistress. In the last reel, Sy's uncontrollable anger breaks loose and he follows the illicit lovers to an hotel and executes a vengeance that lands him in a police station.

One Hour Photo is a Killer Films production and, as such, flaunts the meticulous visual care and attention to detail that have marked most of Christine Vachon and partner Pamela Hoffler's efforts. Though different in many ways, the new film bears resemblance to Safe, Todd Haynes's anatomy of the sterile life of a disenchanted housewife (which was also produced by Vachon). Superbly mounted, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and designer Tom Foden have created a sterile, often creepy milieu that captures in a frightening yet realistic mode the work environment of "average" ordinary people. In this and other technical respects, One Hour Photo was one of the most impressive feature debuts to be seen in Sundance this year.

However, Romanek acquits himself more honourably as a director than a writer. Sy's psychological make-up, motivations, and conduct come across as shallow and pretentious, the product of an intriguing conceit rather than fully worked-out plot and characterisation, which is what made the similarly themed Taxi Driver and The Conversation such existential masterpieces. Indeed, not much is added to the central premise, once it's established that the Yorkins' seemingly picture-perfect existence stands in diametric opposition to Sy's dreary life.

One Hour Photo deserves to be seen as a well-crafted showcase for Williams, who here puts aside his manic energy and machine-gun like witticisms (in his comedies), and his sweetly zany humanistic face (in his melodramas), to deliver a restrained performance that services the narrative rather than his hip persona and ego.

Pro co: Killer Films, Madjak Films
US dist: Fox Searchlight
Int'l dist: 20th Century Fox
Exec prods: Robert B Sturm, Jeremy W Barber, John Wells
Prods: Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Stan Wlodkowski
Scr: Romanek
Cinematographer: Jeff Cronenweth
Prod des: Tom Foden
Ed: Jeffrey Ford
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek
Main cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Dylan Smith