The Night Listener

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Review #206 of 365
Film: The Night Listener [R] 90 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $10.75
Where Viewed: United Artists Denver Pavilions Stadium 15, Denver, CO
When 1st Seen: 5 August 2006
Time: 5:40 p.m.


Click for 'Review Lite' [a 150-word or less review of this film]
The Night Listener starring Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, and Rory Culkin, directed by Patrick Stettner, based on the book by Armistead Maupin who based the book on true events, is one of those films that sort of pops out of nowhere with an intriguing cast and a daring premise, and draws you in only to amazingly disappoint. I equate this to a feeling that even though Spider-man 3 style anticipation was not building for months, I would still rather have not have seen this film than to be this disappointed. And, in this specific case, the source of the disappointment is not as easy pin down as it is to walk out of the theatre feeling it deep in your gut, soul, and mind.

As short descriptions of the film reveal, the film is about a late night radio talk show host named Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) who has made his mark telling very vibrant stories culled from the pages of his own life and long-term relationship with a much younger man with AIDS named Jess (Bobby Cannavale). But, something is wrong in his life with Jess. It's never quite clear what. One thing is that Jess has actually responded well to the HIV drugs and is getting better not worse. And, therefore, Jess is starting to feel like he needs to expand upon his relationship circle; and he's moving out. This causes Gabriel's plane to head into a tailspin. Meanwhile, he does some book editing on the side, and his publisher friend Ashe (Joe Morton) hands him a book supposedly written by a 14-year old blindfolded victim of wild sexual abuse at the hands of his parents and guests of their sex parties. The book is raw and intriguing. The boy, Pete Logand, wrote the book under the guidance of his social worker Donna Logand (Toni Collette) who then adopted him and has been working very hard to protect him and keep him hidden from his parents—only one of whom went to prison for abusing Pete, his mother escaped just after arraignment and is on the loose. After reading the book, Gabriel thinks it's great, and Ashe asks him to call the kid because, as it turns out, the kid is a huge fan of his radio show. So, he calls the kid and they talk, and they talk every day for a while, and Gabriel talks to Donna, and this goes on for a while, until Jess finally hears the kid and Donna one day on speakerphone when he's at Gabriel's house fixing a circuit breaker. After the conversation, he tells Gabriel he thinks that Pete and Donna are the same person, that their voices are the same. Well, you can imagine, poor Gabriel's already spinning-out-of-control life just takes another dive. He cannot believe it, but then he starts to wonder. He plants the seed in Ashe's mind, and this gives the publishing firm cold feet about going ahead with the book. As if Donna knows Gabriel suspects that Pete's not real and the book is a fake, she invites him for Christmas to see Pete who is now very, very sick with AIDS himself. Just before he is supposed to go to Wisconsin to see Pete, Donna calls to say that doctors do not advise visitors at this time due to a flare up in his AIDS and him being highly susceptible to infections. This and a few other things eventually rip at Gabrielle's mind to the point that he must find out for himself if Pete is real, so he flies to Wisconsin to track him down. All he has is an address on a letter he received from Pete.

"…disappointing yet sinister…more questions than answers…insufficiently intriguing…"

Well, I've probably given away too much of the story, considering that what I've said combined with my obvious disappointment in the film gives too much of a glimpse of what happens next. Really though, the film takes a turn once Gabriel arrives in Wisconsin. It takes a turn into real psychological terror. There is something sinister going on, and Gabriel has been drawn into the middle of it. And his motives are entirely unclear. Why does he care so much? What is his interest in Pete? What is Pete's interest in him? What is Donna's role in all of this? Alas, the film ends without complete resolution of any of the questions it poses, which is probably the source of most of my disappointment as much as I would not have wanted Mr. Maupin to invent answers to questions in a story based on true events, I would rather not have known this story in the first place. Fans of Robin Williams will be sorely disappointed unless they were wondering if he could ever calm down his on-screen presence sufficiently to play a semi-boring, upper middle-aged, dulcet-toned late night radio talk show host. Well, now we know he can. Boy can he ever. Which cues another problem with the film, the film up until Gabriel gets to Wisconsin, is also sort of boring. It's one thing to set the stage for the events to come, and another to drag it on so long. And, it takes Gabriel a pretty long time to catch on to the fact that Donna is not going to make it easy for him to ever meet Pete, if Pete exists at all. In the end, nothing really happens and nothing is really resolved. We only get hints mostly from Gabriel's friend Anna (Sandra Oh) who gives him information she's read on line about a psychosis where people deprived of attention invent people or illnesses to get them attention. Yet, this turns out to be as speculative as anything else in the film.

So, it's not the acting, though Mr. Williams is a bit flat. Toni Collette continues her string of knock-your-socks off performances. How she has never won an Academy Award® I'll never understand. Rory Culkin for his all of about 15 minutes in the film is great. Bobby Cannavale and Joe Morton, while both under utilized are both very good.

The directing by Patrick Stettner is ok. I would argue the pace of the beginning 1/3 of the film is too slow. We see a lot of Gabriel sort of wandering around his house and looking morose. The middle 1/3 is outstanding. The dramatic tension, again the sinister feeling of the town in Wisconsin, the needle in the mind that drives Gabriel to actually commit various crimes to find Pete, Toni Collette's portrayal of Donna, all of this make for a chilling, bewildering, frightening half hour or so. And then the film winds down ending with more questions and fewer answers. Then there's the story itself. Again, I really cannot ask Mr. Maupin to invent stuff, but I wonder what drew him to this story in the first place, perhaps the answers lie in the book and not the movie. Was this a story that needed ever to be told in movie form? Is it sufficiently intriguing as to warrant a major motion picture? I would have to say, no.

The Night Listener [DVD](2006) DVD

Related Products from
Other Projects starring: Toni ColletteRobin Williams
Joe MortonBobby CannavaleRory CulkinSandra Oh
Other Projects written by: Armistead Maupin

Review-lite [150-word cap]
The Night Listener starring Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, and Rory Culkin, directed by Patrick Stettner, based on the book by Armistead Maupin who based the story on true events, is one of those films that pops out of nowhere with an intriguing cast and a dark premise, draws you in, only to amazingly disappoint. A late night radio talk show host, Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is given an intriguing book by a publisher friend supposedly written by a 14-year old victim of wild parental sexual abuse. After reading the book, Gabriel phones the kid, develops a friendship with him, and endures events that cause him to suspect that the book and even the kid himself are fakes. Williams is somewhat flat most of the film which mostly meanders along. The middle third is the ticket both sinister and scary, unfortunately the film ends with more questions than answers

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