The Night Listener

The Night Listener

Sometimes Robin William's ad-libs get on Toni Collette's nerves so much she wants to strangle him.

(Miramax) Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Joe Morton, Rory Culkin, Bobby Cannavale, John Cullum, Lisa Emery, Ed Jewett, Becky Ann Baker, Joel Marsh Garland. Directed by Patrick Stettner.

Our view of reality is really made up of a series of perceptions, not all of them ours. Very often we believe something to be merely because somebody told us that it was, be it the media, a friend or a loved one. Just because we are told something is so doesn’t necessarily make it so, no matter how much we may want it to be.

Gabriel Noone (Williams) is a radio personality on NPR, and one of the most popular on the airwaves. His late night show “Noone at Night” mainly consists of Noone telling tales about his life, concentrating on the eight-year struggle of his partner Jess (Cannavale) with AIDS. As a result, he has become a hero to the gay community and a well-respected raconteur everywhere else, a kind of gay Garrison Keillor.

As successful as he is, he is having all sorts of problems at home. His relationship with Jess is disintegrating, and it’s tearing him apart. Unable to get past his grief and pain, he is unable to do his show. Ashe (Morton), a friend of his in the publishing industry, in an effort to cheer him up hands him an unpublished manuscript of a book that his publishing house is about to put out, about a courageous young boy named Pete (Culkin). Pete grew up in a household of abusers who put him through the worst kind of tortures imaginable. Little more than a sex toy, he was eventually rescued and later adopted by a sympathetic social worker named Donna Logand (Collette), but by this time the boy had contracted AIDS.

It turns out that Pete is a big fan of Noone’s radio show, and the two strike up a series of conversations. Noone comes to admire the boy’s courage and spirit. He is in the final stages of the disease now, in the hospital more often than he is at home. The boy’s fight slowly brings Noone out of his shell of despair.

However, something is not quite right. When Jess finally gets to talk to both Pete and Donna, he notices that their voices sound alike. Upon further examination, it turns out that nobody has ever seen Pete—only Donna. Gabriel’s research assistant Anna (Oh) does some digging and can find no records anywhere of a situation even remotely resembling that of Pete Logand. When Gabriel talks to Donna about his misgivings, she has an explanation for everything. Still, the misgivings persist and the publisher eventually decides to delay publication until they can get to the bottom of things.

Gabriel is torn. He wants to believe that Pete exists, but he has doubts and yet if he is real, then he just helped kill the dream of a dying boy. Wracked by guilt, Gabriel decides to go to Wisconsin to ascertain the truth for himself.

The novel that this movie was made from was in turn based on the story of Anthony Godby Johnson, the “author” of the book “Rock and a Hard Place” and who victimized such people as Oprah Winfrey, Mister Rogers, Keith Olbermann and novelist Armistead Maupin, author of The Night Listener. I thought it interesting that Maupin gave his lead character the name of Noone—or no one. Clever, don’t you think?

Williams, who it now can safely be said is one of the more gifted actors working, takes on the role of a gay man riding an emotional roller coaster. There is a great deal of sadness in him but also a good deal of resolve. He isn’t a typical hero for a thriller, clearly conflicted about his own doubts. He really needs to believe, but can’t quite bring himself to.

Ever since she first came to my attention in The Sixth Sense Toni Collette has continued to impress me more and more. She is taking on roles that challenge her and stretch her nearly every time out and she has the ability to take a role that has little substance and make it something better. She is given a lot more to work with here, and she is magnificent.

Director Stettner, on only his second feature film (The Business of Strangers was his first) shows a sure hand. The pacing is steady and unrelenting. There is not a bit of wasted business. He also makes some intriguing choices. For example, he shows Donna early on in the movie to be well dressed, good looking, competent and confident. When Gabriel finally meets her she is frumpy, plain and unpredictable. The idealized Donna is what Gabriel imagined her to be; the reality turns out to be a bit different.

This is a well-written, well-acted drama…er, thriller…ok both. I was pleased to see the gay characters portrayed as people whose sexuality happens to be of that orientation. Too often gay characters in the movie are flamboyant queens (and Williams bears some responsibility for this here) who can’t really be taken seriously. Gabriel Noone is a serious character, flawed and over-emotional sometimes yes, but with a heart as big as a buffalo and a mind to be reckoned with. Maybe that will be what The Night Listener is remembered for in the long run.

WHY RENT THIS: A competently executed thriller/drama whose main characters are gay men whose sexuality is merely a part of their personality. Williams and Collette give solid, grounded performances. There are a lot of subtleties in the movie that are delightful upon further reflection.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Noone behaves inconsistently from time to time which while making him a more realistic character can sometimes be annoying to the viewer.

FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual content, as well as some fairly rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real-life husband of writer Armistead Maupin plays Jess’s friend Lucien, whom Noone refers to as “Lucifer.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sukiyaki Western Django

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