The Night Listener review by Mike Long

It would be very easy to accuse many actors of being "stuck in a rut" and state that they take the same sort of roles over and over again. Thus, it seems illogical to say that an actor is repeating a pattern of diversity, but that seems to be the case with Robin Williams. Although best known for comedic roles, a quick look at Williams' filmography reveals that vacillated between comedies and dramas for years. In the recent past, those dramatic roles have gotten darker in movies like One Hour Photo and Insomnia. 2006 was no exception for Williams, as he starred in a family comedy (RV), a political satire/thriller (Man of the Year), and the dark mystery The Night Listener.

Williams stars in The Night Listener as Gabriel Noone, a New Yorker who has a popular nationally syndicated radio program called "Noone at Night", where he basically performs oral essays. While his professional life is going well, Gabriel's personal life isn't, as his long-time partner Jess (Bobby Cannavale) has just left him. This has left Gabriel quite depressed. A friend in the publishing world (Joe Morton) gives Gabriel a manuscript of an autobiography written by a 14-year old boy. In the book, the boy describes how he was sexually abused by his parents & their friends and contracted several sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Gabriel is moved by the book, and is further touched when he receives a letter and photograph from the boy, Pete (Rory Culkin). Eventually, Gabriel speaks with Pete, and his adoptive mother, Donna (Toni Collette), on the phone. They begin to speak more and more often and Gabriel feels a real bond with the pair.

However, one day, Jess stops by to visit and upon hearing a message from Pete and Donna points out that the two voices sound very similar. Gabriel is skeptical at first, but he soon begins to hear it as well. What is going on with Pete and Donna? Gabriel soon becomes obsessed with this question and finds himself traveling halfway across the country to answer one question: Is Pete a real person?

The Night Listener is an interesting film which offers an intriguing premise and a very subtle approach to its material. Director Patrick Stettner has created a very quiet film and there are long spans in which there is no dialogue. The first plot twist doesn't come until about 20 minutes into the film, and up until that point, it appears that The Night Listener is simply going to be a drama/character study. Yet, even when Gabriel becomes suspicious of Pete & Donna, and the film becomes more of a mystery/thriller, Stettner keeps things very low-key. The movie could have very easily wandered into heavy noir territory, and many directors would have pushed it that way. But, despite the fact that the photography is dark, the movie never goes to that noir place and is able to retain its dramatic roots while continuing to roll out its story.

And, for the most part, that story serves the film well. The movie is based on true events experienced by screenwriters Armistead Maupin and Terry Anderson (based on Maupin's novel). As noted above, at the outset one gets the idea that The Night Listener is going to be about the abused child and his recovery, but the movie makes a sharp turn and makes the viewer (and Gabriel) question everything which we've learned thus far. The bad news is that the movie can't sustain its charm or suspense for the entire film (despite the fact that the movie is only 81 minutes long). The story has some plotholes and there are too many times where we question Gabriel's actions. The movie's nadir is the ending, which is meant to be a shocking, twist ending, but only serves to raise more questions than it answers.

Stettner does get good performances from his cast. Williams is very good here as the conflicted Gabriel. No one can look sad in the same way as Williams, and this helps us to buy Gabriel's depression. But, Williams' naturally manic nature serves to fuel Gabriel's obsession, so this rings true as well. Collette continues her streak of playing middle-class American women (what is up with that?) and is solid. Rory Culkin is good, and makes us wonder whatever happened to Macauly?

While RV and Man of the Year had tons of advertising, Robin Williams' The Night Listener received a very quite release in 2006. That's unfortunate, as the film is a fairly solid mystery. The story presents an fairly original idea, and the quiet execution is novel enough to be interesting. It's only the fact that the story runs out of gas that keeps me from highly recommending this one.

The Night Listener seeks our true identity on DVD courtesy of Miramax Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This is a fairly standard transfer, as the image is sharp and clear. There is no notable grain on the image, nor are there any defects from the source material. The dark scenes (which are abundant once Gabriel begins his search) are never overly dark. Yet, the overall look of the picture is very flat. The image never really has much depth and there are some shots which lack in detail. The DVD contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which, again, is quite standard. The dialogue is clear, and the stereo effects are fine. When necessary, the surround sound effects are good, but they don't happen often. I didn't note any overt subwoofer action.

The DVD contains only two extras. The first is a DELETED SCENE which actually adds a great deal to the ending and makes one of the stranger shots in the film (which is in slow-motion) suddenly make sense. I can't imagine why this scene was removed. The other extra is "The Night Listener Revealed", a 12-minute featurette which explores the making of the film. This is an especially interesting segment as Maupin and Anderson (on whom Gabriel and Jess are based), talk about their real-life experience with a child who may or may not have existed. Hearing this story adds more depth to the film. There are also comments from the director and the cast.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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