Adapted from a novel by Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener is a somber, slowly paced account of a radio host’s response to a provocative manuscript. Told in a convoluted style featuring layered flashbacks, shifting points of view, and some of the darkest cinematography of the year, the film presents viewers with many more questions than it tries to answer. Chief among them is why director Patrick Stettner insisted on shooting a clever but inconclusive character study as if it were a horror film.
New York City radio host Gabriel Noone (played by Robin Williams in full “serious” mode) is a lonely, middle-aged author famous for detailing his lover’s battle with AIDS on public radio monologues. Jess (Bobby Cannavale) has just moved out after eight years, leaving Gabriel feeling especially vulnerable. Publishing editor Ashe (Joe Morton) gives him a manuscript, supposedly the autobiography of Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), a fourteen-year-old who contracted AIDS after being sexually abused by his parents. Adopted by social worker Donna Logand (Toni Collette), Pete–an assumed name–now lives in a small town in Wisconsin.
When Pete calls Gabriel to talk about the book, the two become friends. Jess is more skeptical about the boy, pointing out that Pete’s voice sounds like Donna’s. To prove Jess wrong, and to quell his own doubts, Gabriel flies out to Wisconsin to meet the Logands. What he finds there–an unpredictable mix of hospitality and hostility–leaves him shaken.
Stettner sketches in the film’s New York scenes with small but accurate touches that help round out Williams’s muted performance. The comedian, a genuinely accomplished performer, is so careful to tamp down every aspect of Gabriel’s personality that there is very little left to care about. Wearing milky blue contacts, Collette is more interested in toying with her role as a blind social worker than performing with Williams. She does sightlessness expertly, but the whole effort feels like a stunt.
Maupin’s adaptation, written with his ex-lover Terry Anderson and Stettner, tends to reduce his novel’s complex situations to obvious ones. “This is not one of your stories,” Jess tells Gabriel, and if that’s not blunt enough, the message is repeated several other times, even by Gabriel himself. But if The Night Listener isn’t a story, then what is it? Stettner tries to avoid the script’s problems by pumping up its suspense elements. An ordinary trip up the stairs suddenly becomes a scene out of The Grudge. Peter Nashel’s otherwise effectively melancholy score goes all jangly and discordant, the screen becomes too murky to read, and pointless shocks arrive with annoying regularity. A somber story line, empty scares, and a deceptive ending are not likely to spell box-office success.
Cast and credits
Cast: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Joe Morton, John Cullum, Rory Culkin, Sandra Oh, Becky Ann Baker, Lisa Emery, Mary Ann Plunkett.
Credits: Patrick Stettner. Screenplay by Armistead Maupin & Terry Anderson and Patrick Stettner. Produced by Robert Kessel, Jeff Sharp, John Hart, Jill Footlick. Executive producers: Michael Hogan, Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan. Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler. Edited by Andy Keir. Production designer: Michael Shaw. Costume designer: Marina Draghici. Composer: Peter Nashel. Music supervisor: Linda Cohen. Co-producers: Michael J. Werner, Wouter Barendrecht. Associate producers: Brett Williams, Nina Wolarsky. A Miramax Films presentation of a Hart Sharp Entertainment and IFC Films production, in association with Fortissimo Films.
Miramax/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/81 Mins./Rated R