When a moviegoer purchases a ticket to a Robin Williams film he is rolling the dice. He might be treated to a rare delight, a stinker, or any number of categories in between.
Despite the inevitable advertisements comparing it to a Hitchcock film (there’s no special similarity outside of the genre chosen), we are not quite so lucky. But, on the other hand, it could have been a lot worse.
The Night Listener is about radio personality and story teller Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) and his relationship with a young boy of fourteen years living with a foster mom. The young boy, Pete Logand, played by Rory Culkin, calls Gabriel to talk with him after Gabriel was given Pete’s manuscript, a personal tale of the young boy’s sexual abuse at the hands of his parents.
Both characters are experiencing an inner pain in their lives – Gabriel from the abandonment of his lover Jess (played by Bobby Cannavale) and Pete from his sexual abuse – and turn to each other for companionship.
Things take a wrong turn when Gabriel’s sort of ex-lover Jess raises some doubts as to the authenticity of the manuscript and even as to whether Pete is a real person or just the creation of his foster mother, Donna Logand. Gabriel is at first irked by the suggestion, but when Pete’s prospective publisher starts to get cold feet, Gabriel decides to investigate and prove once and for all whether Pete is real or the creation of a sick minded woman.
It is hardly Hitchcock-ian, as the ads suggest, for any number of reasons. The lengthy development of the individual scene, the attention and personality given even to minor characters with the briefest of touches, the perfect camera angle used at just the right moment in just the right way…no admirer of Hitchcock will mistake this lesser effort for the real McCoy. But there are times when the movie works.
Unfortunately, there are just as many where it does not. The relationship between Gabriel and the boy, for instance, moved along too quickly and too easily. We are shown their first conversation and suddenly, a scene or two later, they have a fully blooming relationship with no sense of an intervening time in which they slowly grow to know and trust each other.
Although it is difficult to construct such a relationship and convey it in a story, rather than gloss over it, the director and screenwriter might have used this time to slowly plant the seeds of doubt in our minds.
When suspicion finally does come, it strains credulity too far. With no real reason to suspect anything, Jess hears a message left by Pete and his mother and comments to Gabriel that their voices sound similar. Hey! Maybe they are the same person. After all, he has never seen them, has he?
It is a tad much to be believed, but during the next bit there are some effective thrills as Gabriel goes to frigid Wisconsin to investigate. With the exception of a run in with the police, which I still do not understand, the middle section of the movie is the best part of the film.
And the end? Well, it doesn’t really have an end. At about the time you are expecting the third act to begin it suddenly stops. Any viewer expecting a real rise in stakes and tension and thrills after a moderately promising second act will experience a severe disappointment. A fulfilling final rise in action and a satisfying resolution, even if it left things unanswered (or perhaps especially if it left things unanswered), might have saved the movie.
For all its flaws in the beginning, it was never bad and was always at least competently put to film by the team behind the camera. After the 90-minute mark we are left undecided, expecting the last part to either make or break the movie. But when that last part never comes? It’s an odd sensation, like a birthday celebration prematurely ended before the cake with all the candles is brought out.
The Night Listener isn’t Death to Smoochy, but it sure isn’t Dead Poets Society either. In the very turbulent career of Robin Williams, with stratospheric highs and abysmal lows, a movie like this will hardly get noticed three years from now.
Making the Grade: C
The Upside: The premise holds promise and the execution isn’t execrable.
The Downside: An important relationship is glossed over rather than developed; a couple things strain credulity; there is no third act!
On the Side: The Night Listener is based on a true story about a 14-year-old boy whose actual existence was never firmly established. Perhaps the third act of that particular story is still to come.
Release Date: August 4, 2006
Review by Matthew Alexander, Film Critic for Film School Rejects