The Night Listener
|Robin Williams||Gabirel Noone|
|Directed by||Patrick Stettner|
Why is it that the best true events happen to people who tell stories for a living? The author Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) got taken in by a 1993 literary hoax, and he revisits the material in The Night Listener, an ?Inspired by True Events? psychological thriller adapted from his bestselling novel of the same name.
How true these events are is as much a part of the warp and woof of this story as the story itself. Maupin?s tale has to do with the telling of stories, and the amorphous, shifting lines between truth and lies, fact and fiction.
In The Night Listener, Maupin?s alter ego is Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a gay writer and late-night radio raconteur, host of the national broadcast ?Noone at Night.? It may be instructive to pause here for a moment to examine the names. Noone is a fairly straightforward assemblage of ?no one.? The name Armistead Maupin has been deciphered as an anagram of ?a man I dreamt up,? although the author maintains that it is a family name, and his own. As I say, the best true events often fall to those who can profit from them.
Noone is in the throes of an emotionally wrenching break-up with his longtime companion Jess (the excellent Bobby Cannavale of The Station Agent) when a publisher friend (Joe Morton) gives him a manuscript to read. It is a harrowing tale of sexual abuse, allegedly written by a 14-year-old boy with AIDS. The boy?s name is Pete (Rory Culkin), and he is a big fan of ?Noone at Night.? A few days after he reads the manuscript, Noone gets a call from the boy, and a telephone friendship is struck up.
Pete?s nightmare years of sexual abuse were stage-managed by his parents, from whom he has since been removed. He has been adopted by a social worker named Donna (Toni Collette). Noone, Pete, and Donna develop a closeness during the course of the phone call relastionship, and Donna invites Noone to spend Christmas with them in Wisconsin. But Pete?s illness takes a turn for the worse, and Donna calls off the visit.
From here on things get complicated, and perhaps it?s best to gloss over the nature of the complications. As revelations go, these begin to emerge too early in the story to qualify as a surprise ending, but there are some surprises nonetheless. And they have squarely to do with the central themes of truth and fantasy.
It is safe to say that Noone decides to travel to the small town in Wisconsin where Pete and Donna live, to clear up some ambiguities that have begun to trouble him. It is also safe to say that the troublesome questions only deepen with each step, sucking him down like quicksand. He becomes obsessed, crossing over the line of generally acceptable behavior, and getting himself chased by dogs, security guards, and personal demons.
As a professional spinner of tales, Noone mines his own life for inspiring true events, but there?s no legal or ethical requirement to prevent him from embellishing if it will make a better story. He describes what he does as ?looting my life like a magpie, keeping the shiny stuff and discarding the rest.?
The Night Listener for the most part maintains a dark and disturbing tension as it takes us through its quirky, offbeat world. As a movie, however, it suffers from difficulties that would not have been problems in the book. It is a paradox of the movie medium that one of its great strengths is that it can show us things, and one of its potential weaknesses is that it replaces our imagination with its literalness. In this movie, things are shown to us that later appear to be untrue. On the pages of the novel, this would not have been an issue. Here, you can excuse it by saying the images are in Noone?s head, but it still smacks of cheating. The screenplay was written by Maupin and his former lover Terry Anderson (who is Jess in the story), along with director Patrick Stettner. It?s intelligent, but one suspects that a more experienced screenwriter might have come up with better solutions to the problems of translating the material to the screen. The characters never get the depth they need, and the mechanics of manifesting the complexities of this cat?s cradle of emotions come up a little short.
Director Stettner, making his second feature (after 2001?s The Business of Strangers,) sustains the pace for the most part, although he lets it sag a bit in a few limp scenes between Williams and Collette. Williams is in his serious mode, which sometimes takes him down the garden path of smiling bravely through winces of emotional pain. There?s less of it here than in such swampy fare as Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come, but you?ll recognize it. Apart from that he does a good job. Collette is strong in the more faceted role of Donna, the protective and perplexing foster mother. The supporting characters are well-handled by such solid pros as Morton, Cannavale, Sandra Oh, and John Cullum, each of whom adds to the picture.
And there?s a cameo from a stuffed animal, the Velveteen Rabbit, from the classic children?s story by Margery Williams, which allows the repeating of that book?s wonderful philosophy: ?Real isn?t how you are made?it?s a thing that happens to you, when you are loved.?
© Text 2006 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be