The Night Listener

(2006) *** R
82 min. Miramax Films. Director: Patrick Stettner. Cast: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Rory Culkin, Joe Morton.

Armistead Maupin's 2000 novel The Night Listener pre-dated the Jayson Blair, James Frey, and JT Leroy scandals that challenged readers' trust in dramatic "true" stories. But Maupin anticipated the issue when he personally became subject to a story he began to suspect was more or less than met the eye. An investigation followed, and Maupin ultimately fashioned The Night Listener, a fictionalized version of his experience. The slippery natures of truth, fiction, lies, and wishful thinking now get full play in the screen adaptation of The Night Listener, starring Maupin's friend and fellow San Francisco native Robin Williams.

Williams plays the Maupin surrogate, Gabriel Noone, an author with a popular late-night public radio show on which he tells stories inspired by his own life. After ten years, Gabriel's romantic partner Jess (Bobby Cannavale) wants time apart; having conquered HIV, he no longer must depend on Gabriel's care. Depressed and vulnerable, Gabriel loses his focus as a storyteller, but an unexpected development gives him purpose. Through Gabriel's agent (Joe Morton), fourteen-year-old listener Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) passes Gabriel a manuscript of a memoir, detailing the boy's horrifying abuse as a child (the memoir's title, The Blacking Factory, alludes to the ornate suffering found in Dickens).

Intrigued, sympathetic, and flattered by Pete's interest, Gabriel strikes up a long-distance friendship—between New York and Wisconsin, by phone—with Pete and his protective adoptive mother Donna (the always dazzling Toni Collette). All is well until Jess—on a visit to Gabriel's apartment—raises questions about the nature of Pete and Donna's life, which Gabriel has been taking on faith. "You're the fucking one who can't see the reality!" snaps Gabriel, but the seed of doubt—poisonous or not—is planted. Compelled, Gabriel clumsily plays detective, operating on the notion that only seeing will be believing.

Maupin wrote the screenplay with his real-life "Jess," Terry Anderson, and director Stettner. The resulting kaleidoscopic mystery pits faith in humanity versus cynicism and raises intriguing questions about truth and its unreliable plundering for fiction or memoir. Gabriel is not immune to these questions. "For years, Jess was dying and you picked over him like a vulture," Donna reminds him, and his radio show has, indeed, threatened to run dry with Jess' exit.

Gabriel willfully remembers events in ways that maximize their storytelling impact. In search of the child, he follows a star. Though it's not the star that ultimately leads him to the Logand home, he retells the story that way; the symbol is just too good to resist. Maupin raises an even more unsettling question: if something is believed to be true, might it not be as good as true? The question serves as an implicit metaphor for faith in the universe and love. "It's a hard place to be, not knowing for sure," says Donna. "We're only as loved as we think we are."

Stettner's muted style and Michael Shaw's superb production design serve the material well: delicate visual cues enrich the story, and understated framing and editing contribute to the film's dread suspense and subtle symbolism. Stettner also allows a suitably black-comic edge to the proceedings by acknowledging Gabriel's unconventionality as a hero (and casting Sandra Oh as his assistant). Top-notch performances all around complete the picture, with Williams in fine dramatic fettle as the troubled writer. A captivating mystery, The Night Listener demonstrates that the truth may set you free, if only you can be confident in what's true.

[For Groucho's interview with Armistead Maupin and Patrick Stettner, click here.]

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