Robin Williams seems determined to alternate his films and characters between big, robust, and extrovert to small, quiet, and restrained. "The Night Listener" (2006) finds the actor at his most controlled. Indeed, he is sometimes so reserved in this film, you'd think he was sedated. Still, the movie offers him a fascinating role and a topical subject, so if you have the patience, it might pay off. For me, however, the film was too slow, too distant, too sterile, too predictable, and in the end too ambiguous to be entirely successful.
Working against the film from the beginning is that it's "inspired by true events," as the prologue states. Why does this work against it? Because the movie is not only a psychological profile but a mystery, and in both cases there isn't much to explain if we know the facts of the case beforehand. Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a character based on author Armistead Maupin ("Tales of the City"), who claims to have experienced most of the events of the story himself and recounted them in a 2000 novel. So the story has been around for a while and many people already know it. Adding to the problem is that Noone recounts his story in flashback, meaning we know in advance that nothing too seriously grave has happened to him. And more inauspicious still, Maupin never resolved the mystery of the story in real life, making for a rather unsatisfying ending to the movie as well.
In the film, Noone is a New York radio personality, a late-night storyteller with his own eleven-to-midnight show, going through a rough patch in his personal life as his longtime companion, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), is leaving him. Noone is in a vulnerable mental state, looking for somebody, anybody, to cling to for emotional support. That's when a publisher friend, Ashe (Joe Morton), sends Noone a copy of a manuscript supposedly written by a boy, and asks him to read it and give his opinion of it. Noone does so, and it knocks him out with its apparent honesty and heartbreaking detail about childhood abuse. Then, he gets a phone call from the boy, a fourteen-year-old named Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), who claims to have written the book. The boy, with whom Noone only talks by phone, impresses him with his genuine warmth and sincerity.
According to the book, a family of pedophiles raised Pete and for years used the boy in pornographic movies that they peddled on the Internet. When the authorities finally caught the parents and sent them to jail, they gave Pete over to the care of a social worker, Donna Logand (Toni Collette), who eventually adopted him. As a part of Pete's therapy, the boy wrote the autobiography that Noone and Ashe find so irresistible. To complicate matters, the mother explains that the boy is dying of AIDS.
Then there's a catch. Noone's former companion, while moving out of their apartment, overhears Noone speaking on the phone to both the boy and the mother and notices a similarity in their voices. He becomes suspicious that the boy and the mother may be one and same. Noone and Ashe, he thinks, may be fooling themselves, Noone looking for someone to talk to as well as looking for material for his show, and Ashe simply wanting to publish a good book. It's at this point, about a third of the way into the film, that Noone decides, reluctantly, to investigate the possibility of a hoax, and the mystery begins.
Yes, there are bases here for a good film. Literary frauds are in the news everyday; psychological trauma always makes for good copy; and who can resist a good mystery yarn? Yet Maupin's screenplay never focuses on any one element in its relatively brief, eighty-one minute playing time; and director Patrick Stettner ("The Business of Strangers") paces the story so slowly you could find more action watching dust motes settle on your carpet. Add to these elements Jess's recent recovery from AIDS, Noone's rocky relationship with his ultraconservative father, and so low-key a performance by Williams that you have to wonder how his character or his character's radio listeners could keep awake at night, and you get a pretty disjointed, sluggish, tiresome affair.
The film has a few good, tense moments when Noone slips out into the night looking for the boy and his mother in faraway Wisconsin; and Toni Collette is always a joy to watch. But, otherwise, there is little joy at hand. As a mystery, we can see where it's going almost from the start (or we know where it's going from the real-life incidents), so that angle doesn't really pan out too well. And as a character study, we cannot really care much for Noone, the mother, or the boy. The mother becomes creepier as the story goes on, the boy fades into the background, and Noone becomes ever more irrational, brooding, indecisive, reticent, and dense. Now, if Maupin and co-writer Terry Anderson (on whom the script bases the Jess character) had made Noone a little more like the real Maupin, bright and imaginative, the movie might have perked up a little more. As it is, Noone is so downcast and gloomy, it casts a pall over the whole affair. Moreover, it doesn't help that when Noone reaches Wisconsin every person he meets is unfriendly, rude, or downright hostile, making for further doom and gloom.
Nor does it help that the character's name, Noone, can also be interpreted as "no one," an obvious symbolic reference that the filmmakers never make clear. Is he supposed to represent no one in our society, the nobodies, the nonentities of the world? If so, why is he a well-known and well-liked radio personality? I dunno.
I applaud the film's intent in showing how everyone seeks friendship and love from people, real or imagined. But does Noone want to find the boy and his mother because he needs them in his life at this time or because he's researching a good tale to tell on his radio show? Just who is manipulating whom? And do we care? I'm afraid "The Night Listener" never made me care.
The Buena Vista engineers transferred the movie to disc at a very high bit rate, but because the director chose to shoot in such a dark and murky tone to complement the mystery, the result looks fairly ordinary. The screen size fills out a 16x9 widescreen television, and for the most part it looks clean and free of grain or noise. Close-ups are particularly nice, well focused and sharp. Nevertheless, overall definition is only average, with medium and long shots not so crisp or well detailed.
Since most of the film involves dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does little but reproduce a clear midrange. Occasionally, like during a party scene, you'll hear a big, thumping bass and a few guests rustling around in the rear speakers. Mainly, though, you'll hear people talk (and talk and talk), and now and then you might discern some musical ambience enhancement in the surrounds. As I've said, it's a quiet movie.
The disc's primary extra is an eleven-minute featurette, "The Night Listener Revealed," that includes the story's screenwriters, Armistead Maupin and Terry Anderson, to whom much of the story actually happened. The featurette is engaging, but I believe the character of Gabriel Noone, whom they created to represent Maupin, was much less perceptive in the film than Maupin in real life. Perhaps if the writers had stuck closer to reality and ventured to a smaller extent into fictional melodrama, they might have created a tighter, more believable, more meaningful film. Following the featurette is a three-minute deleted scene, introduced by the director.
The extras wrap up with sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at eight other Buena Vista products; English as the only spoken language; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
"The Night Listener" qualifies as story ripped from the headlines, although, interestingly, Maupin published his novel in 2000, long before some of the current revelations surfaced about phony writers and their supposedly true but phony books. So, yes, it is easy to imagine the plot actually taking place. But having a realistically weird story doesn't alone qualify a film for success. This one never got me involved enough with its main character or its supporting characters to make me feel one way or another about them or their predicaments. That's bad news for a character-driven drama and even worse news for a mystery thriller.