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With: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Joe Morton, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin, Sandra Oh, John Cullum
Written by: Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson and Patrick Stettner, based on a novel by Armistead Maupin
Directed by: Patrick Stettner
MPAA Rating: R for language and some disquieting sexual content
Running Time: 85
Date: 01/21/2006

The Night Listener (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Radio Liars

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Somewhere between big hits like Fatal Attraction (1987) and The Sixth Sense (1999), the American thriller slowly took on a hint of desperation. Like American comedies, they're eager to please, but they're nervous about allowing an audience's attention to waver for even a heartbeat.

Has there ever been a duller run of so-called thrillers over the past 18 months than: The Interpreter, Flightplan, Derailed, Stay, The Sentinel, Firewall or The Da Vinci Code?

But Patrick Stettner's The Night Listener is a distinctively unusual thriller. Rather than building to a slam-bang payoff, it lulls us in, almost without care. It's not particularly desperate that we love it, or that we respond to each cue in the proper way. It plays less like an entertainer doing handstands and more like a musician, lost in a song and unaware that an audience is even watching.

In fact, the movie's big turning point occurs about halfway through, casually dropped into a line of dialogue.

This lackadaisical mood matches the film's protagonist, Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a late night radio host who impassively reads his own stories to the insomniacs of New York. (His show is called "Noone at Night.") One of Gabriel's greatest sources of material has been his live-in lover, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), who once struggled with HIV. Jess has now regained his health and has decided to move out.

Unable to continue his work, the distraught Gabriel receives a manuscript from a publisher (Joe Morton). It's written by a 14 year-old kid, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), and tells horrifying tales of sexual slavery and abuse. Gabriel strikes up a telephone friendship with Pete, whose health verges on disastrous thanks to sexually-transmitted diseases and a pair of failing lungs.

Gabriel also gets to know Pete's guardian, Donna (Toni Collette). Their voices come to provide a source of comfort for him -- until Jess overhears them on the speakerphone and opines that it's actually the same person doing both voices.

Our writer becomes obsessed with satisfying this doubt, either by proving the boy exists or by proving he doesn't. In a normal thriller, "obsessed" is a keyword for ramping up the suspense, but The Night Listener refreshingly continues along its same dreamy path.

Gabriel checks out the address on one of Pete's letters, which turns out to be a public post office. The counterman refuses to give Gabriel any information, and Gabriel, rather than using force or trickery, shyly retreats.

Moreover, the plot arc does not provide any kind of life-changing catalyst for our hero; it's merely a bunch of stuff that happens to him.

This is an ideal role for Williams, whose comedy is rooted in a chronic neediness, a constant craving for adoration and love -- perfect for this genre. With Gabriel, he explores this territory, unfettered by performances and facades, and turns in his best work since Insomnia (2002).

A large part of the movie's success comes from Armistead Maupin's screenplay, co-written by his former partner Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner and based on his own book. Maupin bases large chunks of the script on his own life, including his real-life experience with "author" Anthony Godby Johnson and the 1993 book Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story. But Maupin isn't particularly interested in explaining or apologizing. Rather, like Gabriel, he turns it into his own story by including a tribute to his late father (marvelously played by John Cullum) and a subtle spin-off from Tales of the City in Gabriel's housekeeper, Anna (Sandra Oh).

Still, Stettner allows some awkward business to ruin his momentum. In one sequence, Gabriel goes searching local hospitals for signs of Pete, and winds up in a scene out of a cheesy horror film, including a "Body Snatchers"-like startle and a quick, clumsy chase-and-escape.

This odd bit of business leaps out of an otherwise exquisitely controlled movie, begging the question of whether the 85-minute movie needed a bit of padding.

Stettner's 2001 thriller The Business of Strangers had similar problems, coasting along carefully and intelligently, before collapsing in a fit of absurdity.

However, thanks to Maupin and Williams, The Night Listener eventually rights itself and comes out well, leaving us with the feeling that we've become lost in a story, and that the teller enjoyed the telling more than reaching the end.

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