Friday, August 04, 2006

The Night Listener - Movie Review

The Night Listener 2006

Oh, what to do with this tidy little thriller. On the one hand it plays so nicely in such a compact playing time that we feel we should be grateful, pass on our recommendation and leave it at that. And yet . . . and yet. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. “The Night Listener” is based on a novel by Armistead Maupin, the famed creator of the Tales of the City series. Which if you’re not familiar with, always played to us like a Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys grew up, moved to San Francisco to live in a commune where one of the Hardy Boys realized he was gay . . . we’re betting it was Joe. Anyway, Armistead has always had an interest in thrillers; one can tell by his writings that he thrives on the allure of the mysterious or unknown.

And so, we greet the film version of “The Night Listener” which tells the tale of Gabriel Noone portrayed with stunning understatement by the king of overstatement, Robin Williams, a radio storyteller who proclaims himself “a fabulist”. Unfortunately, his personal life is less than fabulous as his longtime lover is currently leaving him. His relationship with his father is strained at best, and he finds himself unable to focus on anything but a lonely thirteen year old boy. Now calm down, people. Don’t get your panties in an uproar and start screaming “NAMBLA!”. The boy in question is Pete Logand portrayed by yet another talented member of the Culkin clan - Rory, a long time fan of Gabriel’s who communicates via phone calls to share his love for a good story.

As it turns out, the even better story belongs to the young man in question. It seems that the child is dying from AIDS, brought upon by a youth filled with such horrifyingly brutal and sadistic torture by his parents that he is spending his final days in the secluded safety of his caretaker and foster mother figure, one Donna Logand, portrayed by the very talented Toni Collette. The rapport and trust that soon builds between Gabriel and Pete is one of two souls reaching out to each other in the still of the night. Isn’t that beautiful? Sniffle.

But not so fast, kiddies. Since Gabriel has developed such a strong feeling towards young Pete and his strong willed but obviously caring mother, Donna he is invited to visit them for the holidays. He is elated. But, soon everything seems to be going wrong. Donna keeps putting off the visits, and later the communications, declaring Pete to be too ill to receive visitors. Upon playing a message from the Logands, his ex-partner questions the veracity of the scenario. To him, the two voices sound distinctly similar, if not the same person.

Gabriel’s world is completely shaken. Does this child exist? And if not, what could possibly be the purpose of inventing such a horrific story merely to get the attention of a disembodied voice hundreds of miles away? He decides to get to the bottom of the mystery. And this is where the film either works for you or fails.

There are many things to enjoy in “The Night Listener”: first and foremost the lovely texture and mood instilled by director and co-screenwriter, Patrick Stettner. After his intriguing “The Business of Strangers” and his assured hand with this current thriller, he is clearly one to keep your eye on. He works minor miracles in all too familiar territory. For once Gabriel ventures out to the rural hinterlands to discover the truth about Pete, it is pure "American Gothic". Which is certainly not a bad thing, if the story can support the trip. In this case, it almost does.

For there is a deep dark secret lurking with the Logand household, and we certainly wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, so we won’t. So there. Nyah. What we will tell you is that the film is definitely worth a visit for the three central performances which all deliver the goods.

Robin Williams has far outgrown his useful qualities as a screen comedian. One too many films like “Patch Adams” has placed him firmly on our blacklist. Oscar be damned. Although that does raise a good point, in his films where he dials down the mania and focuses on the characterization, he can be quite interesting. Here, he manages to balance the slow unraveling of his character’s life with his desperate need to verify the existence of young man who has come to mean the world to him during his time of crisis.

As the young man in question, Rory Culkin is wonderful. Especially since his character is nothing less than an enigma. While the viewer has the opportunity to witness the quiet, graceful manner that young Rory fleshes out this tortured, nebulous creature – he will remain a mystery to our hero. We especially enjoyed Rory’s gift for playing a young man who might be dying, but has chosen not to focus on the grimmest aspect of his shortened life.

But the real acting honors must go to Toni Collette in the most divisive character in the piece. Her Donna Logand has many secrets to keep, and while we begin to understand a few of them she is far from an approachable character. This dangerously aware and emotionally fragile woman is the centerpiece of the mystery. Her tentative manner and steely bearing go a long way in selling the “trick ending” that has come to be so clichéd in all such thrillers.

And that is our main concern with a film that otherwise manages to avoid the obvious. While the marketing campaign telegraphs that this film was “inspired by true events”, we found most of the denouement to be completely unbelievable. Not that we necessarily crave reality in our moviemaking, which is what makes the tagline and the twist ending so unnecessary. Let us believe in the mystery of moviemaking and take us along an entertaining ride, is all we ask.

And certainly, for most of the film, that is blessedly what occurs. It certainly features a fine cast of actors, ably abetted by such talented folks as Sandra Oh as a trusting friend and cohort in espionage for Gabriel.

That humpy Bobby Canavale as Jess, Gabriel’s former beau who still harbors great feeling for his troubled ex. And Broadway veteran, John Cullum seen all too fleetingly as Gabriel’s estranged and mean spirited father whose shadow reaches far into Gabriel’s night.

Co-writer and director Patrick Stettner is to be commended for his control of mood, tone and genuine fear that come in handy in some of the films more stereotypical moments. He is intelligent enough to never let the film descend into a potboiler mess. Perhaps the bumps and skids in this film are more the responsibility of the source material, but still – we were grateful for the moviegoing experience. We would feel almost guilty if we had trounced such an honest attempt at solid filmmaking. And with the performances of Robin Williams, Rory Culkin and the wonderful Toni Collette; we’re positive you'll be grateful as well. Bless you all!

Directed by Patrick Stettner
Written by Terry Anderson, Armistead Maupin and Patrick Stettner
Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin

Robin Williams as Gabriel Noone
Toni Collette as Donna Logand
Joe Morton as Ashe
Bobby Cannavale as Jess
Rory Culkin as Pete Logand
Sandra Oh as Anna
John Cullum as Pap Noone
Lisa Emery as Darlie Noone

Cinematography by Lisa Rinzler
Film Editing by Andy Keir
Original Music by Peter Nashel
Costume Design by Marina Draghici
Production Design by Michael Shaw
Art Direction by Eva Radke
Set Decoration by Rich Devine



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