August 3, 2006

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The Night Listener (R)
Robin Williams calms way the heck down for this role as a radio storyteller who either has made a new literary friend or is the victim of a weird gaslighting in The Night Listener.

Stripped of the Patch Adams buffoonery and the R.V. un-comic schlubbery, Williams is highly tolerable in the guise of the character actor he might have been were it not for Mork & Mindy and those damn suspenders. Here, he plays Gabriel Noone, a popular radio personality who reads his fiction stories on air to much acclaim. Despite this improbable road to success, Gabriel is having a tough time with life right now. His longtime partner Jess (Bobby Cannavale) has just left him. Jess, a younger man, had been dying of AIDS but found that he could live with the disease and so wanted to do just that — live a little. Gabriel is feeling his age and feeling lonely. At the request of his agent, Gabriel distracts himself one night by reading the memoir of a 14-year-old boy named Pete (Rory Culkin), who has grown up suffering horrific abuse only to be saved by a social worker named Donna (Toni Collete), who has adopted him. His abuse is so horrific one might question its reality from the get go (a story that sensational would surely have surfaced before, a smart book agent might wonder) but Gabriel, who is delighted to have new friends, doesn’t question Pete’s story or the fact that all the dealings with Pete and Donna have been via telephone until a visiting Jess points out that the voices of the teenage boy and the middle-aged woman are startlingly similar. The same, perhaps.

Gabriel then becomes obsessed with finding out how real they are, eventually traveling to the Wisconsin town where they live.

Ah it’s a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside a … actually, no, it’s just a mystery and not a very complex one. The movie makes great use of a moody score, grays and dark blues in the landscape and low lighting to give every appearance of spookiness. But the story doesn’t actually leave you guessing about much once it starts going. Conversely, while it over-explains on the plot, it doesn’t give us nearly enough of the juicy character development that might have made up for story weaknesses elsewhere. And it introduces interesting supporting characters, including one played by Sandra Oh, who are quickly dropped – and their absence is keenly felt.

The Night Listener shoots for muted and tense but only achieves muffled and tedious. C-

— Amy Diaz


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