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The Night Listener   C

Miramax Films / Hart Sharp Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Patrick Stettner
Writers: Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson, Patrick Stettner (based on the novel by Armistead Maupin)
Cast: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Sandra Oh, Rory Culkin, John Cullum, Joe Morton.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's a brilliant echo of Psycho in the best moment of The Night Listener -- a sequence that captures what the rest of the movie pursues in vain. Radio host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) has broken into the house of a mysterious woman (Toni Collette) who holds the key to a baffling mystery. As he climbs the darkened stairs, we're overwhelmed with an immense sense of intrusion -- the notion that we've crossed a boundary into someone's private space, and that things lurk here that were never meant for outsiders to see. Vera Miles took a similar journey through the home of Norman Bates, and for those few brief moments, The Night Listener makes good on the haunting premise for which it was intended.

Unfortunately, director Patrick Stettner can't maintain that tone for long. When it fails, The Night Listener quickly succumbs to underbaked sogginess, struggling with a concept that it hasn't properly worked through. Compounding Stettner's folly is a surprisingly dismal turn from Collette, whose normally impeccable repertoire suffers from the same disjointed clunkiness as the rest of the film. It's all the more frustrating because the novel on which it is based drips with meaty potential -- potential that Stettner simply can't find a way to render effectively on the screen. The real-life incident that fostered it kept an entire roomful of journalists enthralled when author Armistead Maupin spoke at a recent press conference. You can sense its energy beneath the surface of The Night Listener -- an eerie, tragic case of deception and loneliness with deep resonance in the electronic age -- but it never becomes prominent enough to hold us in its grip.

Williams, at least, exudes a sympathetic mixture of gentleness and pain as Noone, a thinly veiled version of Maupin himself. He first appears with his career stuck in neutral and the detritus of an ugly breakup still cluttering his soul. Then he stumbles across what he believes to be a kindred spirit. A young boy named Pete (Rory Culkin) -- molested by his parents, dying of AIDS, and hidden by his foster mother Donna (Collette) for fear of retribution -- has penned an extraordinary novel of his experiences, which Noone is asked to proofread. Pete is a huge fan of Noone's radio show, and soon the two are engaged in long telephone conversations about all manner of things. The boy seems untroubled by Noone's homosexuality (despite a few nasty digs here and there), and his unspeakably difficult life hasn't dimmed his percolating optimism one bit. The older man is enchanted, and his friendship with the boy provides fresh stability for a life in flux. Then, after a speakerphone call with Pete and Donna, Noone's visiting ex-boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) makes an ominously casual remark: didn't those two voices sound like the same person?

The question reverberates throughout the length of The Night Listener, driving its protagonist to some very dark and scary places. How could such a seemingly real human being be fictitious? How can such horrible details be fabricated? And yet, Noone has never actually laid eyes on the boy. Is Donna merely protecting him from his monstrous parents? Or is she hiding the fact that she has essentially created an invisible friend? That should be enough to propel even the thinnest of plots, as Noone pursues the answers tentatively at first, then with increasing fixation. The mind on the other side of his queries may be dangerous -- far more dangerous than he assumes -- but on the other hand, it might all just be paranoia. He himself has a knack for confabulation; do his suppositions have a real foundation, or are they inflicting unspeakable damage on a real boy who has suffered enough torment for a dozen lifetimes?

Potent stuff. And yet The Night Listener can't find a reliable way of presenting it. Stettner often seems tentative and unsure of himself, relying on his performers rather than the strength of his own vision. The scenario encounters routine hollow patches, substituting dead air for the necessary tension required to drive the psychological points home. The overall mood struggles to assert itself; at times, it feels like a routine psychological thriller, while other times, it tries to focus more on Noone's emotional confusion. Amid the uneven mixture, the movie itself is swallowed whole -- stumbling fitfully from scene to scene until an anticlimactic ending closes things on a supremely arbitrary note.

The fault, I fear, lies more in the technique than the material, shaped by hands that lack the confidence to properly develop it. It's not hard to see what attracted talent like Williams and Collette. The film probes at troubling depths, suggesting a rich exploration of the most alienated sides of human nature. But that possibility is never realized -- not in any way which justifies the exercise, or makes proper use of the resources at its disposal. The Night Listener thus becomes a woefully lost opportunity, raising our hopes without the benefit of a decent payoff. Its core questions of what constitutes identity and how truth can sometimes arrive from fabrication simply never find any real coherence. The worst part about The Night Listener is that it didn't have to be that way. Something great is waiting there; the filmmakers just aren't able to locate it.

Review published 08.03.2006.

Also read: Q&A: Armistead Maupin.

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