The Austin Chronicle

The Night Listener

Rated R, 91 min. Directed by Patrick Stettner. Starring Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Rory Culkin, Bobby Cannavale.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 4, 2006

Based on Armistead Maupin’s 2000 novel of the same name, this taut, wiry exercise in eerie bad vibes saddles its protagonist, New York-based writer-cum-radio personality Gabriel Noone (Williams), with not only the unexpected exit of his longtime companion Jess (Cannavale of Will & Grace and Happy Endings) but also an increasingly bizarre series of events involving a teenage victim of childhood abuse. That boy, Pete Logand (Culkin), has turned his demons into prose and that prose into what may very well be the literary debut of the year. At the urging of his publisher (Joe Morton), Noone reaches out to the boy, who lives in rural Wisconsin with his mother Donna (Collette), via a phone call, which then leads to suspicions that neither Pete, who is dying of AIDS, nor his mother is completely who he or she seems to be. But is Noone cracking up in the debris of his relationship, or is there something genuinely amiss? Part postmillennial meditation – on loss and love and where, exactly, those two emotional shipwrecks diverge, only later to meet up in wholly unexpected ways – and part semisuspenseful mystery-film oddity, this is a grim ride that nevertheless ends on a note of hope. As it turns out, Jess, too, has AIDS, but thanks to postmillennial pharmaceuticals he’s suddenly no longer imminently doomed, nor does he need Noone to care for him around the clock. The situation gives him both a future and the curiosity about what might be beyond Noone’s townhouse door, which, of course, sends Noone off his otherwise-even keel. It’s unlike anything else out now, and Williams, to his credit and our immense relief, has for the moment foresworn his usual giddiness in favor of a muted, hunched acting style that befits both the character of Noone and the overall tone of the film. There are precious few smiles on display here, and the ones that flicker around the edges of Williams’ mouth are tentative and confused. Melancholy sits atop both the night listener and the night speaker, and it might all be too much to bear were it not for Toni Collette, who continues to amaze and disturb; she so fully inhabits the role of Pete’s mother, Donna – who may or may not be utterly unhinged – that it’s downright uncomfortable to watch as Noone tries to get a straight answer from her about her child. Half the time Collette seems as ephemeral as one of the shades from The Sixth Sense, but moments later she’s spitting fire and morphing into a windswept northern harpy. Running just under 90 minutes, The Night Listener is emotionally dense but never fully takes flight. It feels brief, and while far too many studio films bog themselves down in overlong fits of action and exposition, this is one film from which you leave the dark feeling it concluded, if anything, too soon. Without giving it all away, Maupin’s vaguely Kafka-esque storyline has had its own literary doppelganger in the real world (which, if you’re familiar with the writing of J.T. Leroy, will only serve to rattle you more). What’s really real, after all? At the end, not even Maupin can say for sure.

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