Reel Opinions

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Night Listener

There's a very good two hour movie within the 80-minute long The Night Listener. Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin (which in turn was inspired by an actual event in his life), the film is a fascinating and intriguing mind trip of a dramatic thriller that comes up short in some ways simply because it doesn't quite dig deep enough into its own material. As it is, the movie is quite good, but I can't help but think that The Night Listener could have been really special if it just had a bit more time to flesh out its story.

When we first meet gay novelist and late night radio show host, Gabriele Noone (Robin Williams), he is deep in depression since his relationship with young lover Jess (Bobby Cannavale) has just recently soured. While Gabriele is sulking, a friend in the publishing business (Joe Morton) approaches him with a fascinating manuscript supposedly written by a 14-year-old boy living in Wisconsin. The boy is named Pete (Rory Culkin), and he is dying from a disease. Pete has written a shockingly brutal and honest memoir about his childhood growing up with a pair of sexually abusive parents who used to force him to participate in videotaped sex acts. These days, the boy lives in seclusion with a caring foster mother named Donna (Toni Collette). Gabriele is immediately drawn to the boy's story of hardship, and he becomes even more interested when he hears that Pete is a fan of his writings. Taking a chance, Gabriele calls Pete, and the two start a long distance friendship over the phone as the months pass by.

As the relationship grows, questions begin to arise. Gabriele starts to wonder why no one seems to really know or have ever even seen Pete in person. Furthermore, when Jess hears a recorded message that contains both Pete and Donna's voice, he thinks it sounds like the same person doing two different voices. It seems that every time Gabriele tries to arrange a meeting with the boy, something gets in the way. Looking for answers, the author decides to take a flight to Pete's hometown. His search for the truth turns into an obsession as he searches for any piece of evidence that proves Pete's existence. The local hospitals have never heard of this boy who is supposedly at death's door, and none of the locals seem willing to share information about the boy or the woman who cares for him. The deeper Gabriele digs, the more he begins to question everything that he's come to know about the situation.

With his countless work in mediocre family comedies and animated films, it's sometimes easy to forget that Robin Williams is actually a fine actor with the right material. The Night Listener is definitely a match for Williams' more subdued dramatic acting style. He is able to bring much vulnerability and sympathy to his character of a man driven to obsession to find out the truth. Williams has proven in the past that he is very capable in darker works such as Insomnia and One Hour Photo, and although he's not quite as memorable here as he was in those films, he is still able to carry the entire movie on his own, which he is pretty much forced to do in many scenes. The story built around the character of Gabriele is equally engaging. It is a slow burn thriller that starts off innocently enough and keeps on building to the point that the audience has no idea where the story is going to go, and they are captivated. The way that director Patrick Stettner builds the tension in the story is masterful, even if he does fall back on the trick of increasing the eerie music on the soundtrack to build tension only to have nothing happen a little too often. His use of small town Wisconsin in winter settings also add an appropriately cold and dark tone to the story that help further the atmosphere.

Furthering the film's credit is a wonderful turn by Toni Collette as the mysterious Donna. Her character runs a full range of emotions, from caring and sympathetic, to seemingly paranoid and dangerous at a drop of a hat. She wisely chooses not to play the character too broadly or over the top, and even comes across as being sympathetic at times. This makes the character very believable, especially when you find out her true role in the story. Also good is Rory Culkin in a minor yet important role as the elusive Pete. He never actually gets to act in the same scene as anyone else, and he's mostly heard as a voice on the phone, but he is still able to create a genuine and honest character during his few scenes. The rest of the cast are good in their respective roles, but not given enough time to develop, such as Sandra Oh (Sideways), who plays a close friend of Gabriele's who encourages him to dig deeper into the mystery.

With its wonderful cast and intriguing mystery story, it's almost a shame that The Night Listener seems content to almost keep us at a distance from the characters and their relationships. I find this surprising, especially since original author Armistead Maupin is credited as head writer of the screenplay. With his personal insight (both to the novel and the actual experience), you would think there'd be a wealth of information and characterization for the film to dive into. Unfortunately, due to the film's short running time, we feel like we are only skimming the surface. The relationship between Gabriele and Pete is never developed quite as strongly as it should be, so it kind of becomes hard to swallow that the man would become so desperate and obsessed with proving the kid's existence when questions begin to arise. The movie kind of gives us the bare essentials, then kick starts the plot just as we were getting to know the two. The film gives us a limited explanation, since we know that Gabriele is concerned for the boy's health, as he went through a similar situation with someone else in the past, but it's not enough. And although the film is mostly told at a leisurely (though never boring) pace, it still seems to be in a rush. Gabriele tracks down information too quickly in some scenes, often with very vague clues.

Though not free from faults, The Night Listener is a very nice adult alternative to the usual summer movie fare. I guess I liked what I saw so much that I wanted there to be more. But, I guess that's what the novel is for. I can't judge the film as an adaptation yet, but I can say that The Night Listener is a mostly successful dramatic thriller that knows how to hit the right emotional notes. With so many stories in the media about the integrity of certain memoirs being called into question, the film's subject matter is also a timely one. If anything, the movie should give anyone who sees it something to talk about.

See the show times in your area or buy the DVD at!



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