The Night Listener

August, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Patrick Stettner

Starring:Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Sandra Oh, and Rory Culkin

Armistead Maupin, creator of the successful Tales of the City television series, wrote the novel upon which this curiously unsatisfying thriller is based. In both the film and book, Maupin expands upon an actual event in his own life involving a telephonic friendship with a young man who, as it turns out, may or may not have existed. Given Maupin’s impressively demonstrated abilities, it’s hard to imagine that he failed to see how lifeless this filmed version would appear once director Patrick Stettner and Editor Andy Keir assembled its 82 minute running time. Everyone involved gets an “A” for effort, but “F” in execution.

The fault lies not in the premise; late-night radio commentator Gabriel Noone, (Robin Williams) hears from Pete, (Rory Culkin) a terminally ill teenager who has just written a book outlining his horrific sexual abuse at the hands of his parents. Now cared for by his adopted mother Donna, (Toni Collette) a sympathetic nurse who helped rescue the boy from his abusive parents, Pete seeks a connection with Gabriel because the latter has filled his radio programs with stories of the struggles Gabriel had with the health problems of Jess, his AIDS-afflicted partner. Before it’s too late in the young author’s remaining life, will Gabriel help find a publisher for Pete’s book?

As the lengthy but evasive phone-friendship with Pete and Donna unfolds however, Gabriel begins to wonder if they are really one in the same person.  When his concern for the boy’s plight collides with these suspicions, Gabriel leaves his snug brownstone in New York City and travels to the small town in Wisconsin where Pete and his mother reputedly live. Once there, he meets Donna only to discover that she’s blind and living alone in a ramshackle house which contains little evidence that she’s caring for someone who is desperately ill. She insists that Pete’s in a local hospital, but refuses to give Gabriel its name and location. His clumsy attempts to find out on his own evoke outrage from Donna’s friends and physical abuse at the hands of the local authorities. He returns to New York, only to be told that Pete’s now dead…but what’s Gabriel to believe when he gets a final call from Donna urging him to watch a video of Pete in a motel room near La Guardia she’s just checked into?

Collette delivers another intriguing character study here, infusing Donna with subtle menace; but given the story’s inherent limitations, the character ultimately has no right to be as interesting as this accomplished actress makes her. From drama, (Muriel’s Wedding) to comedy, (In Her Shoes) Collette is always interesting to watch and seems poised for a major, breakout role. On the other hand, Robin Williams quickly becomes annoying as the depressed gay man trying desperately to determine whether he’s really helping a pathetically abused adolescent or simply being duped. His obsessive concern with Pete’s situation is simply posited but never properly developed and this lack of adequate motivation makes the mordantly withdrawn performance Williams delivers unsatisfying. The rest of the cast is competent in roles that also fail to provide any real depth to the storyline and the strangely melodramatic climax undercuts the minimal suspense the film previously managed generate.

And why pick this director? Stettner has been at the helm of only one other feature film, (the poorly received Business of Strangers) and while he executes individual scenes adequately, his script cheats the audience early on by presenting Pete and a non-handicapped Donna as real individuals before conflating them in the story’s subsequent events. Films are by nature literal - - and symbolism, if it’s to be conveyed effectively, has to be carefully and ambiguously signaled. When actors are shown as living, speaking persons in scenes obviously intended to be taken literally, how can a director expect anyone to accept their subsequent transformation into the figments of a deranged imagination? Donna is first presented as a sighted person, then a blind one, then a sighted one again without any explanation…what’s the audience to believe?

Art not only imitates life, it also often imitates other art; in this case, it’s hard not to wonder whether Maupin was afflicted with the desire to outdo T.C. Leroy, whose book, a gruesomely autobiographical depiction of child sexual abuse, has recently been exposed as a complete fraud. While his fans can legitimately accept Maupin’s account of this bizarre tale as an attempt to share his personal reaction to events in his own life, moviegoers will have a hard time describing this film as anything other than unintended cinematic silliness. 

The Verdict ?  Skip it.   



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