The Night Listener has a great story, so great that it indirectly causes the movie’s downfall. It’s based on an Armistead Maupin novel, which in turn was based on an incident that actually happened to the author. Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but feel as if the filmmakers expected to make something haunting and indelible merely by putting the story on celluloid. Not so, as it turns out.
Robin Williams stars as Gabriel Noone, a New York-based radio journalist with a syndicated weekly late-night show bearing the hackneyed title of Noone at Night. He’s been an emotional wreck since his longtime boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) moved out, but he’s pulled out of his depression by the story of someone whose life sucks worse than his. That’s Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), a 14-year-old boy and a big fan of Gabriel’s, which is the reason someone passes Gabriel a copy of an unpublished manuscript of Pete’s memoir. The book details how the kid was pimped out by his mother as a sex slave to a circle of pedophiles in the unnamed place where he grew up. After a series of telephone conversations, Gabriel becomes anxious to see Pete, who’s now dying of the AIDS and syphilis he contracted as a result of his experiences.
The Night Listener is the second feature for director/co-writer Patrick Stettner, who made a superb debut five years ago with the hotel-room drama The Business of Strangers. That film showed him to be weak at spinning a whodunit story but strong with atmosphere, directing actors, and exploring character. Those same traits rear their heads here, only the material needed a better hand with suspense. The more Gabriel investigates, the more the story falls apart. When he travels to the tiny town in Wisconsin where Pete supposedly lives, all he finds is Pete’s fiercely protective adoptive mother Donna (Toni Collette), a blind social worker who won’t let Gabriel see the boy. In fact, Gabriel can’t find anyone who has actually laid eyes on the kid.
Collette’s highly strung Donna, who’s so fragile underneath her tough-talking façade, is the standout in a cast that’s largely responsible for holding your interest as the movie sorts out the truth. Too often, though, this thriller boils down to Gabriel showing Pete’s photograph to yet another Wisconsinite or poking his nose into yet another room where he’s not supposed to be. (This only pays off once, in a nicely hinky scene at a pediatric hospital in Madison, where Gabriel’s appearance makes a kid with no voice try to scream.) Moreover, the scenes between Gabriel and his ex, well-played and well-written as they are, feel like they belong in a different film entirely.
The movie comes along less than a year after JT LeRoy, the real-life memoirist who wrote about sexual abuse in his past, was exposed as a fraud. Even this confluence of events can’t ignite the dramatic spark that this intelligent and scrupulous but low-temperature film so desperately needs. The Night Listener feels as frigid as a Wisconsin winter, and for a story with so many volatile emotions at work, that’s wrong.