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Night Listener, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/03/06 22:27:50

"It's the snooze button on your clock radio."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s a lot to want to like about “The Night Listener,” the film adaptation of Armistad Maupin’s novel of the same name. At its heart are some fascinating characters and a most beguiling mystery. Yet the story backs itself into a corner and gets lost trying to find a satisfactory way out, and we’re left with an idea that slowly dissolves until we’re bored more than we’re thrilled.

Maupin, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner, informs us that the story is “inspired by true events” - a suggestion that in Hollywoodese usually means “mostly all made up but we stole a few real notions along the way,” but here it translates to “something weird happened to Maupin some time ago, and he’s taken that weirdness and used it as the basis for a quiet little thriller.” As if the movie expects us to doubt the realism of the tale, the film ends with a title card reminding us of Maupin’s own experiences that did the inspiring. More than just unnecessary, it’s also a bit pushy, like somebody ending a telling of an urban legend with a cry of “No, really, guys! Seriously!”

Robin Williams stars as Gabriel Noone, a popular writer and host of the radio show “Noone At Night.” We begin as Gabriel relates to his listeners the eerie tale of his encounter with a troubled teenager, Pete (Rory Culkin), who’s just penned a heartbreaking account of a young life filled with abuse. The kid and the radio host strike up a friendship via telephone; Gabriel also chats with Pete’s foster parent, Donna (Toni Collette), and soon it’s almost like he’s part of the family. But then a friend asks an interesting question: nobody’s ever actually met Pete in person, and considering how Pete and Donna kinda sound alike, do you think Pete might not exist?

It’s a heck of a notion, but it’s here the film gets itself into trouble, for now the film can only wind up one of two possible ways: Pete’s real or he’s not. If he is real, then all the doubt that soon overwhelms Gabriel is for nothing, and we wind up with a letdown. On the other hand, if he isn’t real, then the mere asking of the question wraps up the story for us. There are no other surprises to be had, and all that’s left is for us to watch as things play out.

So the film winds up in a grey area between drama and thriller, too interested in mystery to simply show us people’s lives, but too unwilling to go into all-out thriller mode, with all the menace and terror and surprise that might ensue. The Donna character is set up to be a threat in later scenes, but the screenplay repeatedly backs off of this idea, afraid to dip all its toes into the horror pool.

The mere idea of possible thrills, then, keeps this from succeeding as a drama. It’s in the no-thrills stages that the movie works best, toying with the notion that whether or not Pete exists doesn’t really matter at all - it’s Gabriel’s wish that he does that’s the real core of the piece. (Gabriel, at the tail end of a relationship falling apart, now discovers the son he could never have.) Yet the script keeps tossing us into almost-thriller areas, forcing us to expect something more than what actually happens. As such, we’re left with little more than a sense of disappointment at both the chills that never arrive and the drama that should have been built up instead.

Through it all, we do get some sharp performances, not only from Williams and Collette, but Sandra Oh, Joe Morton, and Bobby Cannavale in key supporting roles. Stettner (whose previous film, “The Business of Strangers,” also failed to reach its potential as solid drama) does a capable job of leading us through the various moods of the script, and he keeps everything on a slow boil, allowing the more meditative moments to work their way through our brains.

Yet it’s all lost on a screenplay that can’t decide how it should play itself out. Even at a mere 81 minutes, the whole thing runs out of steam far too early. There’s an excellent tale to be made of the elements in “The Night Listener,” but as they’ve been assembled here, it’s little more than lost possibilities.

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