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The Night Listener
cast: Robin Willaims, Toni Collette, Rory Culkin, Sandra Oh, and Bobby Cannavale

director: Patrick Stettner

81 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
Without giving too much away, the basic plot of The Night Listener involves Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a successful gay novelist (in one cringe-worthy scene, a male flight attendant approaches Gabriel on a plane and thanks him for "everything you've done for us"), who spends his nights hosting a sort of radio phone-in show. Gabriel reads his stories. He talks about his life with his AIDS-suffering partner, Jesse (Bobby Cannavale). He generally bares his soul.

But lately, Gabriel is having problems with his integrity - his stories sound hollow, trite. Fake. He is experiencing a crisis of confidence and cannot seem to shake it. So when his publisher (Joe Morton) asks him to take a look at the galley of a new book he's planning to print, a semi-autobiographical story written by a 14-year-old boy named Pete (Rory Culkin), Gabriel is both appalled and fascinated by what he reads.

The book chronicles the abuse the boy suffered at the hands of his parents. There are terrible sexual torture sessions, where they and their friends used him as a toy, passing him around for their own hideous pleasure. Soon Gabriel and Pete are talking on the telephone almost every day. A blind foster carer, Donna D. Logand (Toni Colette), has adopted Pete, and he is slowly dying of Aids, which he contracted during those horrific years of abuse.

Or is he? When each of Gabriel's planned visits to the pair are suddenly cancelled, and Jesse voices his concerns that all may not be as it seems with Pete and Donna, our intrepid writer decides to investigate what just might be a mystery. As he draws closer to the truth, and begins to understand that stories are sometimes more than just words on a page, Gabriel rediscovers his passion for life and slowly starts to reconnect with the world.

Williams nicely underplays his role (he's always at his best when he does this), but still I found him somehow unconvincing as a slightly reclusive homosexual man of letters. Colette gives her usual excellent performance, and is really rather creepy in some very ambiguous scenes where her character's veneer begins to crack and something pained and desperate leaks out.

Patrick Stettner's direction is unfortunately flat and insipid rather than mannered and restrained -the film looks a lot like a TV movie-of-the-week. This detracts from a slight, yet intriguing plot (co-adapted by Armistead Maupin from his own novel), making it even less substantial that it actually is. Instead of being personal and intimate, the story very occasionally comes across as lightweight.

The film relies heavily on the innate ambiguity of the story, where we're not sure who's fooling who and what is truth and what is fiction, but the final scene goes a long way towards undermining this delicate balance. It's a shame, because without those awkward last few frames, what we have here is a solid and thoughtful thriller. It is nicely played by the leads and possesses some interesting insights into both the nature of loneliness and the creative urge that leads us all, at some point in our lives, to build our own fictions as a form of defence.
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