I know lots of people who work in radio, but still often find myself wondering about some of the on-air talent I regularly listen to. Have you ever tried to guess what they look like, before looking for their photo on a website? Are they more polite and professional when they're broadcasting? Is their everyday life a reflection of their radio personality, or are they altogether different in person? Is their on-air persona an extension of their reality or a complete fabrication?

Consider the reverse perspective—the callers that these radio personalities interact with—and the same questions generally apply. Are they genuine or are they simply looking to get on air? Do they have a reason or passion for calling, or do they simply crave the attention? Who are these people phoning in with requests and opinions, and what are their motivations?

Robin Williams as radio storyteller Gabriel Noone

Robin Williams as radio storyteller Gabriel Noone

It's this somewhat hazy perception of reality unique to radio (and also writing) that inspires The Night Listener, based on the novel by Armistead Maupin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner. The film's being marketed as a thriller in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, but really it's closer in tone to the work of David Mamet—a quiet, sometimes compelling mystery in the tradition of House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Spartan.

Robin Williams returns to his serious side of acting as Gabriel Noone, an acclaimed author working as a late-night NPR-styled radio host ("Noone at Night") discussing books and reading stories on his program. But his work is suffering, uninspired by his radio work and not having written anything new in years. On top of that, his younger aged boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale) is moving out and considering ending their relationship.

Rory Culkin as Pete, a young listener

Rory Culkin as Pete, a young listener

Then Ashe (Joe Morton), a friend in publishing, gives Noone a galley copy of a new book for his show. It's by a 14-year-old, HIV positive boy named Pete who used writing as therapy to overcome years of sexual abuse in a child pornography ring. Noone is immediately drawn to the power of Pete's story, as well as the quality of the writing. It isn't long before Pete, a fan of the radio show, begins to call at home, and Noone quickly develops a phone relationship with the boy and his adoptive guardian, a social worker named Donna (Toni Collette).

Things seem simple enough until Noone tries to meet Pete and Donna in person. Attempts to return phone calls lead to a disconnected number, and the mailing address turns out to be phony. There are also no online legal records to prove Pete's background or existence. The more Noone tries to track them down, the more he begins to question the identities of Pete and Donna. And yet the explanations given to him are certainly plausible enough. Are these people simply private and secretive, or is there something more mysterious to be uncovered?

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The Night Listener is a compelling enough mystery as it goes along, establishing a good sense of eerie dread, particularly when Noone leaves the comfort of his Manhattan existence to the dreary small town in Wisconsin where Pete and Donna supposedly reside. And unlike many mysteries, it never really demands the viewer to do more than follow along, leaving you unsure of the initial direction and the eventual outcome.

Toni Collette as a social worker who helps Pete

Toni Collette as a social worker who helps Pete

But things get a little absurd shortly after Noone leaves for Wisconsin midway through the film, which runs a scant 82 minutes. Noone's actions become uncharacteristically desperate the more he tries to uncover the truth. He seems to go to great lengths for someone he barely knows, and a half-hearted attempt on his life later on seems more clumsy than suspenseful.

Because the film is so short, it doesn't take any time to establish the bond between Noone and Pete, and it suffers for it. Yes, we know Noone is lonely, sympathetic, and full of admiration, but the personal interaction between them amounts to a couple of aimless (and vulgar) phone conversations. Yet from this we're to believe that Noone would argue with his friends over the matter and ignore his everyday responsibilities for the sake of his relationship with Pete, the son he never had? It causes the character to behave irrationally or else give that appearance since the script is so threadbare.

Odd considering that The Night Listener still manages to lose focus by wasting time on the homosexual subplot. It's not so much the content itself (which is completely verbal save for one kiss obstructed from view) as it distracts from the mystery at hand. On the flight to Wisconsin, a male flight attendant thanks Noone for everything he's done for "their kind." Granted, it leads to one of the film's funniest lines of dialogue, but it fails to add dimension to Noone's character or the central story. To be fair, a scene with Noone's rude and estranged father is equally tangential to the film, wasting our time with a one-dimensional character that never returns to the story. Perhaps these scenes exist to show how respected and lonely the author is, but we get that enough from other details without dwelling on it.

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Sandra Oh as Anna

Sandra Oh as Anna

Williams is subdued but likeable as the aging everyman, and Sandra Oh (TV's Grey's Anatomy, Sideways) is charming as always in the role of Noone's housekeeper friend, Anna. Collette initially seems to be playing the part of the frumpy single mom that she often gravitates towards (i.e., a variation on The Sixth Sense), but reveals more nuances as the film progresses. To their credit, the whole cast does well with what they're given—they're just not given enough for us to invest emotions in.

Which is ultimately where The Night Listener falls short. It's interesting and diverting, but never amounts to anything substantial, meaningful, or even likeable. It wants to challenge our perception of what's real and what isn't, but barely musters the effort to draw a conclusion or make a point about it.

As far as the mystery itself, the script makes the mistake of telegraphing the truth early on—like M. Night Shyamalan's The Village or The Forgotten with Julianne Moore, you can't immediately draw a conclusion, but you'll undoubtedly consider it as one of a few possible outcomes. It's also one of those films where the viewer is left to more or less interpret the ending. "I'm not sure what really happened," says one of the characters. Neither am I, but more importantly, I'm not sure if people will really care either.

Talk About It

  Discussion starters
  1. A character in the film says that we are only as loved as we think we are. Do you agree? Does it apply to Christian faith? If yes, how? And if not, why not
  2. Why is Noone so quick to believe in someone he hasn't seen? What causes him to pursue proof? Would you describe his investigation as a leap of faith or a need to squelch doubt? Does his journey remind you of anyone else in the Bible? (Hint: Consider what it is that allows him to find the house.) How are the two journeys similar and different
  3. How do reality and faith relate to each other? Does one precede the other, or does it depend on the timing of events? Does proof confirm reality? Does proof negate faith?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Night Listener contains "some disquieting sexual content" involving the imagined retelling of Pete's sexual abuse as a child. Despite some brief nudity, there's no graphic action to the scene, implied by showing only enough to give viewers the idea. Though Noone's homosexuality is brought up in the movie, there's little that's objectionable—a single kiss is shared off camera. The primary reason for the film's R-rating is its rampant use of bad language. There's also an intense scene where a policeman uses a TASER gun on one of the characters.

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 08/10/06

Armistead Maupin's novel The Night Listener, which was based on his own experience, has been adapted by Patrick Stettner into a film starring Robin Williams as a radio personality who develops a long-distance friendship with boy dying of AIDS. But critics report that its twists and turns may make audiences a bit dizzy.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a downer, albeit a fairly suspenseful one . … Though the performances are solid … and there are some chills, the result is, on the whole, unconvincing, whatever its real-life foundation."

Mainstream critics are less than satisfied by the result.

The Night Listener
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language and some disquieting sexual content)
Directed By
Patrick Stettner
Run Time
1 hour 31 minutes
Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Rory Culkin
Theatre Release
August 04, 2006 by Miramax Films
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