The Night Listener
Mildly diverting, mercifully short, mostly disposable.
It is an unwritten yet widely perceived truth that Robin Williams has simply ceased to be funny. Much in the same way that Steve Martin was once a comic force of nature, latterly descending into the doldrums of slapstick mediocrity, so too has Mr Williams seemingly lost that vital spark of hysterical chemistry with his audience. Unlike Martin, however, Williams still punches at something of an inverse when it comes to dramatic roles, so much so in fact that younger audience members are just as likely to remember him for the likes of Good Will Hunting as they are Good Morning Vietnam. So we find ourselves with The Night Listener, an ever-so-slightly sinister tale from the pen of Armistead Maupin here adapting from his own novel, and featuring Williams as late night radio jock Gabriel Noone.
From the off The Night Listener sets a somewhat downbeat mood, with Gabriel struggling to find a connection with his long term boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale) who, until recently, was given only months to live. Having conveniently sidestepped whatever non-specific ailment had beset him, Jess' newfound desire for social interaction is causing friction between himself and the much older Noone, into which upheaval pops Pete Logand (Rory Culkin). Introduced to Noone via publisher friend Ashe (Joe Morton), Pete is a teenage boy suffering from a degenerative condition of the lungs whose book, detailing years of sexual abuse at the hands of his parents and their friends, Ashe is keen to promote on the air. The only dialogue Noone has with Pete is via the phone, and after feeling some connection with the youngster he is keen to arrange a meeting, especially since his crumbling social life has lead to a break from nightly broadcasting.
Against the advice of Jess and other friends who see no reason to believe that Pete even exists, Noone sets out to visit the young man in the hope of learning more about his story, despite the mounting suspicion that Pete and his relative-cum-carer Donna Logand (Toni Collette) may in fact be one and the same. It's this uncertainty with which the movie is chiefly occupied as it somewhat tersely seeks to parallel Noone's personal quest for compassion and understanding with that of it's young protagonist, and while it may lack a certain dramatic conviction it's an act director Patrick Stettner pulls off reasonably well. The main problem seems to be a certain lack of identity on the part of the film itself, which could quite possibly be an incredibly clever move or, more likely, due to a lack of focus on Stettner's part. Not tense enough to be a thriller, lacking the emotional oomph to be a drama and yet too character driven for melodrama, The Night Listener's ambiguity, purposeful or otherwise, serves it no favour.
Fortunately the uniformly sound performances of the cast go a long way to improving things, and long after you've stopped caring wether Pete is in fact real or imaginary there's enough talent on screen to keep you cruising to a refreshingly short finish line. Williams' performance here is one of his most restrained and understated; a particularly pleasing turn of event considering the room the material affords for histrionics. While slightly underused, Toni Collette also accumulates some kudos for a similarly subtle performance, and Rory Culkin is entirely serviceable during his brief time on screen as the critically ill youngster. If only Stettner had seen fit to put pedal to metal a little more with the emotional and atmospheric content and Maupin and screen co-writer Terry Anderson likewise in rounding out their characters this could easily have been something a little bit special.
As it is The Night Listener is a passable enough potboiler that will happily while away a reasonable portion of your evening, even if ultimately it has little of any interest to say about the human condition.
I award this movie 3 out of 5 Disko Units
Toni Collette (Donna Logand)
Rory Culkin (Pete Logand)
Bobby Cannavale (Jess)