The Night Listener
Director: Patrick Stettner. Cast: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin, Joe Morton, Sandra Oh, John Cullum, Lisa Emery, Becky Ann Baker. Screenplay: Armistead Maupin & Terry Anderson and Patrick Stettner (based on the novel by Armistead Maupin).

In certain respects, The Night Listener's inadequacies cannot be airbrushed, even though it's the sort of fitfully effective movie that compels some measure of qualified admiration. If we start with the demerits, Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), the main character in the story, is distressingly slow to notice the first major clue that his new friendship with an ailing teenaged author named Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) and Pete's nervous, protective foster mother Donna (Toni Collette) is not what it first appears. Actually, though, that's the nub of the problem: Pete and Donna are what they first appeared to me to be, but Gabriel shows himself to be drastically gullible, especially for someone who lives his professional life in the world of radio, voices, and storytelling. When the necessary misgivings are eventually prompted by Gabriel's lover Jess (Bobby Cannavle), we recognize that the initial shots of Pete and Donna cannot be taken at face value, but as mental projections: Gabriel's visions of the people he assumed were speaking to him over long-distance phone connections. This wrinkle in perspective might be a nifty cue for director Patrick Stettner to consider The Night Listener's overall point of view in more detail, borrowing as it clearly does from Gabriel's subjective reality, but the film never really capitalizes on this stylistic loophole. Even as we worry our way toward the unsettling riddles at the movie's core, we do so in a discordantly frank and literal way. Savvy cinematographer Lisa Rinzler executes some evocative underlighting, staying in key with the most interesting subject in The Night Listener: interludes in our lives when everything wobbles with uncertainty, when our preoccupation with one crisis makes us careless or even purposefully reckless with regard to another. Peter Nashel also constructs a score that preserves the movie's connections to its own best aspects, its most successfully realized moods and ideas. Still, writer-director Patrick Stettner is too blunt to take his cues from his abler colleagues, and he builds suspense not by troubling our sense of narrative accuracy or perspective but by stringing together some chilly scares and macabre outbursts. The surface of his film is creepy, but he's too bullish and simplistic to tinker with the film's building-blocks or its genes, despite every neon arrow that points to storytelling, voice, and mechanics as the driving concepts of his movie.

What The Night Listener does have is brevity and irregularity: flaws within individual scenes, but taken to such extremes that they start to work in the movie's favor. The source of this film is a real-life anecdote in which novelist Armistead Maupin fell hook, line, and sinker for an impostor he met over the phone, and whose identity was never satisfactorily established. It would appear that Maupin is still turning these events and his own susceptibilities over in his mind, and this basic, utterly internalized action of wrestling with a difficult memory that simply won't recede is what the movie gets right. I expected initially that the scenes with Jess, or with Sandra Oh's plucky amenuensis, or with John Cullum's brittle and contemptuous father were nothing but narrative pads to stretch the central episode into feasible feature length (as it is, a mere 82 minutes). But as Gabriel's personal life alternately distracts him from the enigmas of Pete and Donna and then repels him, through its own painful unraveling, into petulant, escapist, vociferous pursuit of Pete and Donna, the tension between Gabriel's two worlds sets an interesting stage for the movie. Assuming pride of place on that stage is an uncomfortable, upsetting performance from Toni Collette as the blind, bristling Donna. Here again, though, we have a network of problems: Stettner keeps using Donna's evident disabilities, both physical and psychic, as opportunities for schlocky thrills, and it's hard to tell whether Collette's eerily forceful impersonation is being marshaled against her will into something cheaper than she intended or whether she has designed the character explicitly for Stettner's thin, occasionally insulting ends. The movie abandons Donna on a dark highway, in more than one sense, but Collette is still powerfully felt in her absence. She certainly offers a richer site than Julia Stiles did in Stettner's first film, The Business of Strangers, from which to mine the same set of abstract, almost circular questions: why is this woman doing what she's doing? Is she real? Is she telling the truth? Where did she go? The surrounding script for The Night Listener is also better than that of Strangers, or at least better suited to Stettner's sincere but narrow read on the material. If it's possible to give a shaky movie credit for creeping effectively under our skins, despite doing at least one thing wrong every ten minutes or so, then The Night Listener deserves this kind of credit. Resoundingly imperfect, and barely formed by the time it concludes, the movie eventually loses track of all its intellectual arguments but it does an ample job producing a feeling of gnawing, specifically writerly unease. C+

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