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Night Listener, The

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 08/03/06 21:15:35

"Of Fathers, Sons, and Unholy Ghosts."
3 stars (Just Average)

Perhaps best known for his much lighter, but still frequently poignant, “Tales of the City” series of six novels, which were originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle and eventually filmed for television, airing on PBS and Showtime, Armistead Maupin also penned this far darker novel of psychological suspense, a largely autobiographical work that he adapted for the screen along with co-writers Patrick Stettner (who also directed) and Maupin’s own long-time companion, Terry Anderson.

Based upon true events involving a 14 year old boy who Maupin never met, but with whom he developed a warm relationship through phone calls and letters, at the heart of The Night Listener are three fascinating characters. Maupin’s alter ego is Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a late-night radio storyteller in the throes of emotional and creative crisis as the result of a breakup with his live-in lover, Jess (in the movie, Bobby Cannavale; in real life, co-scripter Anderson). The “night listener” is 14 year old Pete (Rory Culkin), an ardent fan of Gabriel’s national radio show, “Noone at Night,” a young boy tragically dying of AIDS after having been sexually abused for years by his own parents and their loathsome friends. Rounding out the triad is Pete’s protector and caregiver, his adoptive mother, Donna (Toni Collette), an enigmatic woman who might or might not be harboring an ominous history of her own.

We, and Gabriel, are first introduced to Pete when Gabe’s publisher friend Ashe (the always wonderful Joe Morton) presents him with a manuscript that he hopes will nudge Gabe out of his doldrums. The manuscript, as it turns out, is a polished – and harrowing – memoir, Pete’s accounting of his horrific childhood written entirely in the first person. Moved by the youngster’s tragic background, as well as his courage, Gabriel initiates a telephone friendship with Pete and Donna that escalates into a loving relationship between surrogate father and son, one that, for both boy and man, goes a long way toward obliterating the years of abuse and isolation that had gone before.

When Gabriel becomes challenged, through outside influences, and then through his own belief system, to doubt the veracity of Pete’s story, The Night Listener takes a turn into nail-biting, edge-of-seat territory, a taut study of the ephemeral concepts of truth and belief.

The versatile Toni Collette is quickly establishing herself as the Meryl Streep of her generation, seeming to slip effortlessly from one film to the next into the persona of each of her characters. This year, also turning in a charming performance as a frazzled homemaker and mother to a Nietzsche-obsessed teenager and a 10 year old budding beauty pageant contestant in the delightful Little Miss Sunshine, Collette is mesmerizing here as the intensely protective – and increasingly more-than-a-little creepy – Donna.

Blessedly, Robin Williams dispenses with most of his usual tics and mannerisms, turning in a lovely, subdued performance as the troubled and conflicted Gabriel.

Young Rory Culkin, who was the heart and soul of 2004’s Mean Creek, has a much smaller role here as the dying Pete but plays his part with considerable charm and aplomb. One of my favorite teen actors, I hope – and expect – he’ll be around for a long time to come.

I’ve long been a fan of Armistead Maupin, who had me at hello with “Tales of the City,” the book that launched his rollicking, often moving, chronicles of the adventures of Mary Ann Singleton and her adopted family at 28 Barbary Lane. I know somewhat less about Patrick Stettner, being familiar only with his work on The Business of Strangers, another taut psychological thriller co-starring the formidable Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles.

Having read (and, after seeing the screen adaptation, reread) “The Night Listener,” the third act of the book-to-movie translation is clearly Stettner’s, who elected to take the material into far more melodramatic territory – here, ironically, beginning to test the limits of the audience’s credulity.

Sadly, too, lost in translation from the source material is Maupin’s heartfelt telling of his midlife rapprochement with his father, whose character “Pap” is represented in the film as little more than a walk-on by the fabulous John Cullum.

Still, it’s obvious that both Maupin and Stettner, along with Anderson, know a thing or two about fashioning a crackling good yarn and the art of reeling in one’s audience and holding it enthralled for the duration – in this case, a nerve-jangling, palm-sweating 91 minutes.

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