Based on a novel by Armistead Maupin, which was based in turn on an episode in Maupin's life, The Night Listener explores a shadowy region between truth and fiction. Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a middle-aged writer with a radio show and a foundering relationship — his younger boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), has just moved out — strikes up a long-distance friendship with a teenager named Pete who claims to be one of Gabriel's biggest fans. The boy, who has AIDS, is also the author of a memoir describing the horrific sexual abuse he suffered before he was adopted by Donna (Toni Collette), a kind-hearted nurse.
But does Pete (played, mostly in flashbacks and fantasy sequences, by Rory Culkin) really exist? That is among the questions that haunt Maupin's book, but it is pretty much the only question addressed by this well-meaning, flat-footed screen adaptation, directed by Patrick Stettner and written by Stettner, Maupin and Terry Anderson.
The film has its creepy, suspenseful moments — especially when Gabriel travels to Wisconsin in search of Pete and has a series of unsettling encounters with Donna — but it shrinks a rich, strange story to the dimensions of an anecdote. The intensity of Gabriel's connection to his young friend, who seems to be a lonely, needy soul reaching out across empty space, is posited, but never adequately dramatized. Neither Pete's charisma nor the source of Gabriel's susceptibility to it is given much shape or force.
Williams, in one of his blessedly shtick-free performances, effectively conveys Gabriel's weary, worried stoicism, but the movie limits his character to a few easy, literal motivations. A scene with Gabriel's bluff, Southern father (John Cullum) is intriguing without being especially illuminating, and Cannavale's character seems more functional than real.
THE NIGHT LISTENERDirected by Patrick StettnerStarring: Robin Williams (Gabriel Noone), Toni Collette (Donna Logand), Bobby Cannavale (Jess), Rory Culkin (Pete Logand), Sandra Oh (Anna).Running time: 82 minutesTaiwan Release: Today
We understand that Gabriel, who nursed Jess through a period of life-threatening illness, needs someone to protect and care for, and that Pete represents a beguiling mixture of toughness and innocence, but the psychological and intellectual implications that hover over the story are lost in the spooky atmospherics and overshadowed by Collette's off-kilter showboating.
The story told in The Night Listener resonates uncannily with the curious case of J.T. Leroy, whose literary renderings of a blighted childhood were recently revealed as a hoax. Clearly, there is something about tales of violated innocence, the more extreme the better, that invites credulity. Why would anyone make up such horrible stories? Why would anyone believe — or, for that matter, doubt — them? Those questions hover in the background of this film, which scratches its head and shrugs them off.