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Robin Williams as Gabriel Noone
Toni Collette as Donna D. Logand
Joe Morton as Ashe
Bobby Cannavale as Jess
Rory Culkin as Pete D. Logand
Sandra Oh as Anna
John Cullum as Pap Noone
Directed by Patrick Stettner
The fine line between fiction and reality are put to the test in this unconventional dramatic thriller based on Armistead Maupin's novel, which is elevated by Toni Colette's performance.
Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a New York writer and late-night radio host, becomes friendly with Peter Logand (Rory Culkin), a young boy who's contracted AIDS after years of abuse by his parents. When Gabriel finds out that Peter is in the hospital, he goes to visit him in Wisconsin to no luck, with the missing boy being protected by his blind stepmother Donna (Toni Collette) and the rest of the town.
Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin, "The Night Listener" is a bit of a film anomaly in that it starts as one genre and then turns into another, never fully embracing either. Maupin's novel was semi-autobiographical, but the film takes a number of liberties like moving Robin Williams' character, clearly playing a modified version of Maupin himself, from San Francisco to New York. Who knows if that makes that big a difference in the story, except maybe in the suspension of disbelief, because the openly gay Maupin (and Noone) is likely to have a larger radio audience in San Fran. At least the movie doesn't mask or gloss over the fact that Noone is gay and that he recently broke up with his long time boyfriend (played by Bobby Cannavale), which plays a larger part in his demeanor while experiencing the mysterious case of a vanishing young fan.
(Note: This movie is hard to discuss at any length without revealing an important plot point, so if you're one of those people who hasn't read Maupin's novel but might go see the movie without knowing the general premise, than please stop reading now.)
Shortly after his separation, Gabriel first learns about Peter Logand, a young AIDS-stricken would-be writer, and the two immediately bond, talking for hours on the phone. As he learns more about Peter's harrowing stories about being abused and pimped out to friends by his parents, Gabriel gets closer to the boy, sending him gifts, and soon, he's invited to spend Christmas in Wisconsin with Peter and his adoptive mother Donna. When they cancel the visit at the last minute and Peter stops calling, Gabriel starts getting suspicious, especially since his ex-lover Jesse and his friend and part-time maid Anna (Sandra Oh) are convinced he's being conned. Gabriel secretly travels to Wisconsin to meet Peter, only to learn that the truth is often stranger than any fiction he might write.
The movie seems so well-timed because Maupin's experience that would influence his novel immediately makes one think of the recent incident involving "JT Leroy," a writer who wrote about the abuses he suffered from his mother and stepfathers, which was turned into the movie "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things" by Asia Argento, before it was revealed that it all was made up for the sake of fiction. Maybe the woman responsible for that hoax was influenced by Maupin's novel or maybe it's just coincidence, but there are more layers to the movie once you start thinking about how Maupin's own story was fictionalized for his novel and then changed even more when turned into a movie.
Before it gets into these thought-provoking moments, "The Night Listener" comes off more like a character drama about a fragile and broken writer who finds kinship with a boy, and the amount of subdued dialogue scenes might throw off anyone expecting a thriller. This slow build is even more jarring once the movie does turn into a story that falls somewhere between "The Twilight Zone," Stephen King's "Misery," and a Hitchcock movie, as Gabriel begins investigating the mysterious disappearance of the boy he had befriended. He searches all over Wisconsin including most local hospitals with no luck, but his adoptive mother, the blind Donna (Toni Collette) always has an answer. Soon, the rest of the town starts intervening in Gabriel's investigation, even threatening him if he doesn't leave town at once.
"The Night Listener" isn't going to be a movie for fans of Robin Williams' zany antics, because it's more of the logical progression from Williams' darker thrillers like "One Hour Photo," "Insomnia," and the lesser known "The Final Cut." Despite this resume, Williams seems somewhat miscast, playing the role a bit too solemn and subdued, to the point of not really being a very interesting character. On the other hand, this is an excellent opportunity for Toni Collette to prove she's one of the most underrated actresses working today, giving a performance equal to Kathy Bates in "Misery," taking each emotion to the extreme with an unbalanced character with real psychological problems. In a better world, this would be enough to get her Oscar attention, but the difficult subject matter and the pacing will probably detract from her performance.
The scenes between the two actors are the best in the movie, which is why the second half of the movie is so much better than the first, but it's still nice to see Bobby Cannavale and Sandra Oh in parts influenced by real people in Maupin's life. Their roles are way too small to say much more than that.
The very deliberate pacing and storytelling gives the movie a unique tone, but there's enough of a foothold in conventional cinema that it's not going to completely turn off those interested in unexplained mysteries. Overall, the movie looks really great with a gorgeous soundtrack that allows director Patrick Stettner to turn Maupin's story into a rich, cinematic experience that eventually overcomes the early pacing problems to become something quite thought-provoking.
The Bottom Line:
Those expecting a straight-forward thriller might be put off by the slow pace during the film's first half, but as the tension builds towards the later climaxes, it becomes a captivating thriller. The story and subject matter won't be to everyone's tastes, but it offers some interesting ideas on the separation between fiction and reality, and few can deny that Toni Collette gives her best performance since "The Sixth Sense."