The Night Listener (2006) / Mystery-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for language and sexual content
Running time: 82 min.

Cast: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Sandra Oh, Joe Morton, Rory Culkin
Director: Patrick Stettner
Screenplay: Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson, Patrick Stettner (based on the novel by Armistead Maupin)
Review published August 6, 2006

The Night Listener is based on Armistead Maupin's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, loosely based on the true-life story of his dealings with Anthony Godby Johnson, an abused young boy dying of AIDS.  Johnson was the author of an autobiographical novel, "Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story", which tells of his difficult, heartbreaking life, gaining international attention at many media outlets.  Many of those that corresponded with Johnson now believe that he doesn't really exist, and that he is a figment of the imagination of the woman that claims to be his adoptive mother, who they say used to conduct telephone interviews faking the boy's voice.

In this fictionalized film adaptation, Robin Williams (The Big White, Insomnia) plays popular national radio show host Gabriel Noone, who reads aloud stories to his faithful audience on a show called, "The Night Listener".  Gabriel has been growing increasingly unhappy with the quality of his show, compounded with the anguish he feels at the dissolution of his long-term relationship with his boyfriend Jess (Cannavale, Shall We Dance).  When Gabriel is sent the soon-to-be-published manuscript written by a 14-year-old boy dying of AIDS, it touches his heart, and he soon forms a friendship over the phone with the boy named Pete (Culkin, Signs) and his adoptive mother, Donna (Collette, In Her Shoes).  When Jess points out that Pete and Donna sound remarkably similar, Gabriel soon begins to have his doubts as to whether or not Pete and Donna aren't, in fact, the same person.  His doubts plague him to the point where he travels out to meet mother and son, but finds that the answers to the mystery aren't coming as easily as he hoped.

While I do feel that The Night Listener is a worthwhile film that is well-developed and increasingly interesting as it unfolds, I am also a bit apprehensive about recommending it to just anyone.  While it is a straight-forward drama/mystery, the way in which Stettner (The Business of Strangers) directs the film is as a thriller, which does generate a great deal of suspense and intrigue, but one in which has no real climax or resolution.  Basically, it's a film with a slow-developing and fascinating build-up, and while it certainly does hold you with rapt attention, some viewers may find the lack of adequate payoff frustrating.

Other than Stettner's deliberate, effective direction, The Night Listener benefits from solid casting, with Robin Williams once again proving that he is actually a much better dramatic actor than comedic, despite being a world renown comedian.  Collette is also very convincing in the role of the mother, meek in her demeanor as to be likeable, but so edgy in her unpredictability, that she is also more than a bit scary.  The supporting cast of Oh (Cake), Cannavale, Morton (Stealth), and Culkin is top-notch, lending a much-needed empathy to the events that make their characters feel well-rounded, despite having only a few minor scenes.

One of the difficulties of adapting this book into a movie is that we are allowed to hear the phone conversations involving Pete and Donna, although we are supposed to not know whether they are the same person or are different.  In the book, such a thing would be easier to keep a mystery, but in the film, Stettner's decision to make it very ambiguous will probably stretch the believability factor for some viewers, such as when Jess jumps far too soon into thinking that Pete is a phony. 

While The Night Listener runs at a lean 82 minutes, it is still a ponderous, atmospheric experience as to seem slow to viewers expecting an efficient shocker.  There are definitely some moments of solid tension, particularly when Gabriel gets in over his head in actively trying to unravel the mystery, but some viewers may still feel a bit let down that all of this tension doesn't find a moment of great release with a revelatory thriller ending.  At its core, this story might be better served as a character study than as a thrilling mystery, and yet, Stettner's ability to keep the balance between drama and suspense still makes it worthwhile.  Like Noone, we want to get to the bottom of the mystery, and while the end does answer the ultimate question, the journey proves to be more revealing than the destination.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo