Although the ads for “The Night Listener” seem to suggest that it is a tense psychological thriller featuring Robin Williams ensnared in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, it is actually a dour little drama whose few surprises will come as anything but to anyone who paid attention to the various literary scandals involving JT Leroy and James Frey that erupted last spring.Based on a novel by Armistad Maupin (which was based on a real-life incident he was involved in), Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a depressed radio host who begins communicating over the phone with one of his biggest fans, a 14-year-old boy who is dying of AIDS and who has just written a book chronicling a lifetime of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of his parents. At first, Gabriel reaches out to the boy and the caseworker who adopted him (Toni Collette) until it dawns on him that the kid’s story may be too good/bad to be true and he raises enough questions to cause the cancellation of the book. Feeling guilty, he sets off for Wisconsin to meet the kid and his foster mom face-to-face and discovers that there is much more (or less) to the story than meets the eye.
This sounds kind of intriguing and I can see how it might have worked on the printed page but in translating it to the screen, co-writer/director Patrick Stettner makes a couple of key errors that all but doom the film from the get go. For starters, instead of allowing us to know the boy at the center of the story only through his voice–as Gabriel does–he has cast Rory Culkin in a decision that throws a lot of the ambiguity out the window. More importantly, he never convincingly illustrates why Gabriel would be so obsessed with getting to the bottom of this story that he would endure such traumas as a cattle-prod attack, a police chase or two, at least one attempt on his life and an extended visit to late-November Wisconsin long after even the most naturally curious of individuals would have thrown in the towel and gone home.Throw in a virtually comatose performance from Williams–I’m as relieved as you are to not have to endure his manic capering but there has to be some kind of happy medium between that and the sleepwalking turn that he has offered up instead–and a too-loopy-for-words contribution from Collette and you have the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines movie where you would be better off sticking with the headlines and skipping the movie altogether.