Theoretically, "The Night Listener" couldn't be more relevant -- even more so now than in 1992 when the events occurred that inspired Armistead Maupin's book and, in turn, Patrick Stettner's film.
Its ideas about fact vs. fiction, reality vs. imagination, and the blurry line in between have become all too familiar following the recent exposure and subsequent downfall of writers like James Frey.
And many journalists still feel the long, dark shadow of the legacy left years ago by journalists Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, as if our readers function under the assumption that accuracy is a privilege afforded to them, and not an automatic right.
So there should be a sense of urgency and immediacy to "The Night Listener," to the way in which it approaches the notion of truth and turns it into a matter of perspective demanding to be mulled over.
It does leave you guessing until the very end and even afterward, if you choose to continue the debate. Who, if anyone, is losing his mind here? How much, and for how long? What really happened -- could anyone possibly know for sure?
In leaving those questions for the audience to internalize and interpret, Stettner as director and co-writer (with Maupin himself and Maupin's former partner, Terry Anderson) has crafted a sophisticated, grown-up mystery, and a welcome challenge. Yet it unfortunately feels truncated, and the 82-minute running time suggests that there was a lot more going on here that Stettner chose to excise.
Maupin's partially autobiographical story begins life as a drama. New York talk radio host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams, believably understated as he has been in "Good Will Hunting" and "One Hour Photo") receives a book about a 14-year-old boy named Pete, detailing horrific physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his parents. The writer is the boy himself (Rory Culkin), and it's remarkably mature for someone his age.
Pete is a fan of Gabriel's show, listening from his bedroom in the house he shares in small-town Wisconsin with his adopted mother, Donna (Toni Collette). He's also dying of AIDS -- at which point you're thinking, this is going to get painfully heavy and maudlin.
But then the film shifts gears when Gabriel begins a telephone friendship with him, and the two discover an unexpectedly easy rapport. Gabriel also talks frequently with Donna, who provides medical updates when Pete's condition deteriorates. Feeling needy and sad after a recent breakup with his boyfriend, Gabriel finds himself increasingly dependent on these people he's never met for comfort and warmth, just as Pete has long relied on Gabriel as a human connection over the airwaves at night.
We should stop right here to preserve the many surprises "The Night Listener" has in store. There are elements that will draw inevitable comparisons to films like "Talk Radio" and "Play Misty for Me," both for the medium they share and for their dark, deliberate sense of mounting suspense. (Stettner's previous feature was 2001's "The Business of Strangers" starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles, a small pressure cooker of a film that felt like Neil LaBute for women.)
Culkin offers a performance that's both spirited and heartfelt, while Collette is completely disarming as the woman who protectively cares for him. And yet there are other parts of "The Night Listener" that you wish were more fully developed.
The relationship between Gabriel and his ex-boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), for example, feels half-baked. There's this vast difference between them in terms of age, personality and sensibility, so how did they meet and what kept them together all that time? And Sandra Oh, who has consistently proved herself as an engaging, intelligent actress, is sadly underused in just a few scenes as Gabriel's assistant.
Ultimately, "The Night Listener" is more admirable for what it tries to be than for what it actually achieves.
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