I'm going to give Robin Williams the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is so detached and distant in The Night Listener because it's how his character goes through life, not because, if he's not wrestling wildlife in a tacky Winnebago, the actor has no clue what to do with his face.
I will also assume that the episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent I saw ages ago with this same story - only much juicier, with extortion and murder in that one - was inspired by the same source material, rather than the film being a watered-down version of a crime show franchise.
Even being so generous, though, The Night Listener is pretty murky and uninspired. Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a writer who reads his short stories on a late-night radio program, who is sullen and depressed by a break-up with his longtime lover, Jess (Bobby Cannavale). In the midst of this self-indulgent shuffling about comes a phone call from Pete, an adolescent fan (played by Rory Culkin) with a nightmarish past of abuse and torture who is terribly ill and living in hiding to avoid his vengeful parents. For reasons that are neither explored nor particularly explained, Gabriel becomes fixated on Pete and his plights.
When questions begin to arise about Pete's story - the similarity in his voice and that of his adoptive mother, Donna (Toni Collette), for instance, or the fact that no one has actually met Pete or Donna or has seen any official documents that can verify their story - Gabriel shifts his obsession to finding out whether the boy really exists, and "Pete" looks increasingly like a tenuously assembled paper man.
Writer/director Patrick Stettner keeps Listener to a trimmed down, efficient length - a smart move, considering we've got a detached, sad sack hero and a simple and easily resolved mystery. (It might be nice if he could make up his mind as to whether it was supposed to be resolved, however. Even though all the riddles get answered pretty clearly, the movie persists in pretending that there is some grand, lingering ambiguity.) Stettner is not quite as adept at making us care - we have no idea what deep personal resonance Pete strikes in Gabriel, so why would the prospect of fraud be anything more than an unnecessarily elaborate prank call? And why does the movie suddenly, and misguidedly, shift into pseudo-thriller territory once Gabriel heads to Wisconsin to investigate? He heads there to ferret out a possible lie, and abruptly, there is creepy music like there's a psycho killer on the rampage.
Fortunately, Listener is a case where the actors - even an unusually stiff Williams - make more of the material. Collette is unsurprisingly wonderful in all of Donna's various personalities, and the supporting cast, including Cannavale, Culkin, Joe Morton as Gabriel's publisher friend, and Sandra Oh as a spunky assistant, are uniformly excellent.
Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener is unintentionally extremely timely, given the recent scandals in the publishing industry when James Frey and J.T. Leroy were revealed to be not quite what they professed. Though the relevance gives the tale a lot of credence - we are, after all, clearly willing to believe all manner of things just because someone tells them to us - the movie never achieves the same level of gripping drama. Perhaps it's because Robin Williams peering into dark windows doesn't offer the entertainment of Oprah delivering the mother of all verbal smackdowns, but in this case, the fictionalized account is just not as interesting as real life.
The DVD includes one deleted scene and a making-of featurette.
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