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Night Listener, The
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by Kim Voynar

"A suspenseful, intelligent thriller that hooks the viewer."
3 stars

How much do we really know about the people we allow into our lives? How much do we manipulate our view of our relationships with others, to meet our own needs? And how much truth is in the stories we tell each other – and ourselves? The Night Listener, adapted by Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson, and director Patrick Stettner from Maupin’s novel of the same name, tackles those questions through the tale of radio storyteller Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), who develops a relationship over the phone with the 14-year-old author of a memoir chronicling a horrific childhood.

Gabriel, a middle-aged gay man dealing with the emotional aftermath of the end of a 10-year-relationship that was the basis for many of his stories, first learns of the boy, Pete Logand, from his editor, who plans to publish the boy’s book. The memoir tells the story of Pete’s childhood – a tragic tale of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of his parents – and was sent to the publisher by Pete’s adoptive mother, Donna, a social worker who took Pete in after he was rescued from his abusive home. Pete penned the memoir, Donna says, as a way of dealing with what happened to him, and it is remarkably mature piece of work for a 14-year-old boy to have written.

After Gabriel reads the book, he gets in contact with Pete and forms a fatherly relationship of sorts with the boy over the phone and through letters. Pete is sick with AIDS and is getting sicker, and Gabriel, lost and flailing in the aftermath of his own failed relationship, latches onto the boy with unbridled fervor. Gabriel’s ex-lover, Jess, once dying from AIDS, has found a new lease on life thanks to a drug regimen. Gabriel nursed Jess patiently back to health while using their relationship as source material for his stories. Now that he’s no longer living under the shadow of an eminent demise, Jess has left the relationship in search of some space and freedom, leaving Gabriel not only without a lover, but without material for his stories, and his life and career are teetering on the brink of disaster as a result.

It’s Jess, though, who first notices something odd: Upon hearing both Pete and Donna speak over the phone when he’s visiting Gabriel, he points out that the two voices sound oddly similar. Gabriel is angered and threatened by Jess’ suggestion that Pete might not be who he thinks he is. As the seeds of doubt begin to take root, Gabriel begins investigating and learns that no one has ever actually met Pete in person, so he goes on a quest to uncover the truth about Pete.

The Night Listener, which Maupin has called a “thriller of the heart”, is based on real-life events that happened to Maupin and his Anderson, his ex-partner, in 1992. At that time Maupin was sent a manuscript by a 14-year-old boy – a tale of abuse that he claimed had really happened. As in the film, Maupin befriended the boy and his protective adoptive mother through a long-distance phone relationship. After Anderson noticed the similarity between the boy’s voice and that of his mother, Maupin began to question not only the boy and his story, but his own need to believe in it. Maupin realized he was living in the midst of a most amazing story about the mysteries of love and the human heart and mind, and the novel The Night Listener – and ultimately this film – was the end result.

Williams pulls out the serious persona he played to perfection in Good Will Hunting, and is at his best in The Night Listener. I like Williams far better as a serious actor than in his off-the-wall, super-energetic comedian routine, and his performance in The Night Listener is one of his best to date. We all weave stories that color our existence, but Gabriel, more than most people, needs stories to survive and thrive. With Jess gone and his creative well dried up, Gabriel no longer knows who he is; within his relationship with Pete, Gabriel begins to find himself again – but can what he finds in himself through Pete be real, even if he learns that Pete himself is not?

Toni Collette, who tackles challenging roles with an uncanny ease, easily vacillates between warm, nurturing mother and potential nutcase. Is Donna really trying to protect this fragile, dying boy from the world – or pulling off an incredible fraud? Collette plays Donna as just off-balance enough that you can never be sure, and as the storyline takes Gabriel to the small Wisconsin town where Donna and Pete reside, I started to wonder if things were going to take a truly bizarre turn ala Stephen King’s Misery, which also brought together an off-center, mentally unbalanced woman (Kathy Bates, in an Oscar-winning performance) with a writer with whom she was obsessed (James Caan).

Rory Culkin isn’t given a great deal to do in the role of Pete, but what he does, he does quite well. If he keeps taking interesting roles like this one, he’ll end up with a career that far surpasses that of big brother Macaulay. Sandra Oh lights up the screen as Gabriel’s friend and assistant, Anna, when she’s on screen – I would have liked to have seen her more, but her interplay with Williams is great when she’s there. Bobby Cannavale puts in a solid, believable performance as Jess, Gabriel’s younger lover, who has cheated death and now wants to relearn what it means to live. Cannavale and Williams, drawing on Anderson and Maupin, on whom their characters are loosely based, create a dynamic to their on-screen relationship that makes it feel very real. The real tension in the film, though, lies between Williams and Collette, and they play their roles to a tee, thrusting and parrying around each other as Gabriel circles closer to unraveling the truth.

The settings and cinematography help set the tone of the film; snowy upstate New York substitutes for the Wisconsin, where Gabriel travels to find Donna and Pete, and the desolation of the wintry setting creates an eerie atmosphere.

Stettner has done a fine job of adapting Maupin’s work, creating a suspenseful, intelligent thriller that hooks the viewer without beating them over the head. He puts the end of the thread in the hands of the audience, and leaves it to them to follow, along with Gabriel, the path it winds along. [i][/i]

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13580&reviewer=417
originally posted: 08/05/06 03:52:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/08/08 adrienn it's a great psychological drama 4 stars
5/17/07 ES Confusing, uninspired and nothing going for it. Save your money people 2 stars
4/12/07 Anikka And the end of this film I wish I could have my time back. 1 stars
2/16/07 ole tom As much as I like Williams in his serious mode, this vehicle drags so much, it might have 3 stars
1/09/07 action movie fan a mystery that remains a mystery 2 stars
9/16/06 joanne parker absolutely awful, my partner and I sat yawning non-stop for an hour the left. 1 stars
9/05/06 Rapunzel Gladstone My son liked it exactly as well as I did! 2 stars
8/17/06 Pn. Remember "Night Gallery"? Now that was awesome. Williams better than the flim as a whole. 3 stars
8/13/06 ahnold Easily 10x better than Pirates or Vice b/c this movie actually has a reasoned plot. 4 stars
8/13/06 greg Disappointingly awful. 1 stars
8/07/06 Jason One of the worst films I have ever seen. Why not make a documentary instead 1 stars
7/28/06 EdwinDrood Authors should never be allowed to adapt their own books for the screen. 2 stars
1/28/06 xtc toni collette is the new kathy bates from misery 4 stars
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  04-Aug-2006 (R)
  DVD: 09-Jan-2007



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