© 2006 Ray Wong
I like Armistead Maupin. I read the book. I like Robin Williams. And I really wanted to like the film. Unfortunately, The Night Listener is rather a dreary experience.
Gabriel Noone (Williams) is a nationally heard radio show host who tells stories about his life every night. As he puts it, he "loots my life for stories, keep the exciting parts and discard the rest." He comes across a manuscript written by fourteen-year-old Pete Lodgand (Culkin), who is a big fan of Gabriel's. Pete's gripping story of abuse rivets Gabriel, and they continue to communicate on the phone. Pete is dying of AIDS, and he's recently moved in with his aunt, Donna (Collette). As Gabriel's relationship with his HIV-positive partner, Jess (Cannavale) crumbles, Gabriel becomes attached to Pete, feeling a strange bond to a boy he's never met.
Soon, Gabriel realizes Pete's stories don't add up, and suspects that Pete and Donna are the same person. When editor Ashe (Morton) rejects Pete's manuscript, the boy and his guardian disappear. Suspicion leads Gabriel on a trip to Wisconsin to track down Donna and Pete. His discovery awakes him to something deeply unsettling about himself.
Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) surprisingly gets top billing but not without reasons. She plays the multiple facets of Donna with equal dose of sincerity and creepiness. Clearly the woman is disturbed, but you can't help but be drawn to her. Williams (RV) tends to consume himself with somber dramatic roles when he's not manic. His understated portrayal of a quiet, introverted, gentle radio personality comes off as dull and too serious. There are times when the emotions are so subtle that I am not sure what is being conveyed.
Pairing Williams with Cannavale (Snakes on a Plane) as a couple does give some insight into the dynamic of that relationship. Cannavale plays Jess as an dying man who has been given a second chance, and his performance is spot on, even though his role is minor. Culkin (The Zodiac) has a good turn in a minor role playing the AIDS-ridden teenager, who may or may not be a figment of someone's imagination. Oh (Grey's Anatomy) is very natural as Gabriel's assistant, but she's not given much to do, except to add some lightness to the material. Morton (Stealth) is solid as an editor whose faith is shaken by a would-be fraud.
Writer Maupin (Tales of the City) adapted his own novel to the screen. The story is loosely based on his true experience, having befriended a teenager, whom he has never met in real life, via phone conversations. What transpires is actually a coming of age story masquerading as a psychological thriller. Unfortunately, except for a few disturbing moments, there aren't a lot of thrills. Not a lot of laughs, either. The heaviness of the film is insurmountable, coupled with Williams' somber characterization and Collette's intense portrayal of a manipulative woman. The multiple plot threads never really come together, and we question the motivation of these characters. These questions are rarely completely answered.
Director Stattner (The Business of Strangers) puts it all together with tight, claustrophobic shots and close-ups. The dark, grainy cinematography matches the gloomy tone of the film. After a while, we are dying for a light moment, a little chuckle, or something to stop reminding us how serious and unpleasant this journey is. The film feels hollow: a character study that doesn't really resolve itself. There are no real surprises, and at the end, we are left with an empty feeling -- we're not sure exactly what we're supposed to take away with this experience. The declaration that Donna and Gabriel are very much alike comes not as a surprise, but a yawn. Ultimately, the characters aren't interesting enough to hold our interest. There might be a profound message in there, but we fail to listen.
Stars: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin, Sandra Oh, Joe Morton
Director: Patrick Stettner
Writers: Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson, Patrick Stettner (based on novel by Armistead Maupin)
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content
Running Time: 91 minutes
Script – 4
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 6
Editing – 6
Production – 6
Total – 6.0 out of 10