Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Night Listener

Director: Patrick Stettner
Starring: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin, Joe Morton, Sandra Oh

Running Time: 81 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

When taken as a mystery thriller, The Night Listener doesn't really work. As a human drama that makes you think and leaves you fascinated, it definitely hits the mark. It's a film about people with empty, depressing lives and the lengths they'll go to fill that void, even if that means believing in something, or in this case someone, that may not even exist. To them it doesn't matter. It's real, or at least if they believe hard enough it becomes so. It's also about a smart man who's one flaw is that he's too caring and a woman who may or may not be taking advantage of him.

This isn't a film that necessarily leaves you guessing nor is it "Hitchcockian" in it's execution, as the back cover of the DVD would lead you believe. All the answers are pretty obviously laid out early on, yet I'm recommending it because it's introspective and smart, making you wonder how you'd react in a similar situation. It also contains two incredibly strong dramatic performances from Robin Williams and Toni Collette. That it's based on a true story should come as no surprise to anyone. I actually remember hearing about it on the news and it wouldn't shock me if things like this really do happen every day. It gets you thinking.

Williams plays Gabriel Noone a gay New York City radio personailty who hosts the very popular show, "Noone At Night" where he shares stories with listeners. Lately though, he's been in a creative slump because his live-in boyfriend of eight years, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), has moved out. Depressed and lonely, he's handed an unpublished manuscript from a publisher friend (Joe Morton) who claims it was written by a 14 year-old boy named Pete Logand (Rory Culkin). To say this kid has had a rough life definitely wouldn't cover it. According to his memoirs, his mother prostituted him out to pedophiles in their basement, he contracted syphilis, and is now dying of AIDS. He was adopted by a social worker, Donna (Toni Collette) who thought it might be therapeutic for him to get his thoughts and feelings down on paper.

Emotionally moved by the manuscript, Gabriel begins phone correspondence with the boy and becomes sort of a father figure to him, sending him playboys and buying him an autographed Derek Jeter bat. He makes plans to go out to Wisconsin and visit, but something always seems to come up preventing it. After hearing a phone conversation with Gabriel and Donna, a skeptical Jess begins to notice how the voices of the Pete and his mother Donna are eerily similar, if not almost identical. This raises all sorts of questions about the validity of Pete's story, his medical condition and more importantly, his very existence. Initially this infuriates Gabriel, whose friendship with this boy has been the only glimmer of hope and happiness in his otherwise depressing life.

The only way for Gabriel to uncover the truth is to take a trip to rural Wisconsin to see Donna and find out if there really is a Pete or he's just being taken for a ride by a very disturbed woman. When he gets there the layers of this mystery begin to slowly unravel as he comes face to face with Donna and the strange townsfolk willing to protect the secret. Revealing any more than that may hurt your enjoyment of the film, but I will say when we meet Donna she's definitely not what we, or Gabriel, expect and Collette unsurprisingly hits one out of the park again in this complex role.

The screenplay of the Night Listener was co-written by author Armistead Maupin, who adapted this from his own book based on his true life experience. Watching the film I was reminded how compelling Robin Williams is in dramatic roles. He always manages to bring something interesting and surprising to the table as a dramatic actor with darker parts in overlooked films like One Hour Photo and Final Cut. His work here is no exception, fitting nicely into that same category. Even with dramatic turns that aren't quite as dark, like Good Will Hunting and What Dreams May Come, he excels, making me always look forward to his more serious work. Here,Williams does a great job playing a man who isn't stupid, just too optimistic to see what's right in front of his face. It's easy to get the impression we could have fallen into the same trap his character does.

This is somberly directed by Patrick Stettner, who previously guided Julia Stiles to one of her better performances in The Business of Strangers a few years ago. While he adds little flare, he keeps things going at a steady, involving pace making the film feel like an interesting short story. The collapsing relationship between Gabriel and Jess is well handled, counter balancing the story nicely, while not causing an unwelcome distraction like I've seen before in movies like this.

The film does have a big problem, which is that there was absolutely no doubt where it was going, yet it seemed to imply it had the biggest mystery on it's hands since The Da Vinci Code. Worse yet, the film doesn't fully commit to giving us that resolution we all expect and the picture kind of just fades away rather than concludes. The special features on the disc are rather scant with a short interview with screenwriters Maupin and Terry Anderson as well as the obligatory director's commentary. The big draw of this film isn't the mystery, but the underlying idea behind its premise. How trusting should we be? Can we accept anything at face value anymore? Something to think about in this digital age where we communicate with people daily, yet can never know for sure who they really are.

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