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`Night Listener' stays tuned in

The intriguing film starring Robin Williams stays on just the right wavelength, dialing up plenty of doubt.

August 04, 2006|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

It's dangerously easy to lose yourself in the sound of someone's voice. The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the human voice is the cat burglar, prying open the window with deceptive purrs.

"The Night Listener," an intriguing adaptation of the 2000 Armistead Maupin novel, concerns voices and fabulations and lies, some more sinister than others. Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a public radio commentator and, like Maupin (best known for "Tales of the City"), a prominent fixture of the San Francisco culture scene. Newly single -- his lover, having survived AIDS, has left him -- Gabriel struggles to adjust.

Then, at a vulnerable point, comes the voice. A publishing friend (Joe Morton) asks Gabriel to read an autobiographical manuscript written by a 14-year-old survivor of the most heinous sorts of abuse. The writer's voice is clear, direct and indelible. The writer is Pete (Rory Culkin), who happens also to be a fan of Gabriel. Soon Gabriel initiates telephone contact with the teenager, and a kind of father-son friendship grows. Gabriel also speaks by phone to ailing Pete's adoptive mother, Donna (Toni Collette), who has squirreled him away in the middle of Wisconsin -- far, she says, from the people who harmed him.

When Gabriel decides to visit Wisconsin, against the advice of his ex-lover (Bobby Cannavale) and his bookkeeper friend (Sandra Oh), "The Night Listener" begins its game of truth-or-illusion in earnest. Maupin wrote his novel in response to a real-life, firsthand incident. In 1993 came a book by a young author named Anthony Godby Johnson; "Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story" was a chronicle of childhood sexual trauma and survival. Maupin, dazzled by the honesty and writing in the book, contributed a jacket endorsement. Later he learned that the mysterious, isolated boy's identity, as well as his adoptive mother's veracity, remained a tantalizing open question.

A different director might have treated "The Night Listener" as pure pulp, especially with an adaptation juicing up some of the big scenes or the hurting lovers sexual component. Maupin's book, adapted for the screen by Maupin, his real-life former lover Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner, has been somewhat sanitized. Stettner's strength is in low-key character development rather than commercial-minded suspense. The trade-off is, in the end, an honorable one. It's a small but crafty and well-acted picture.

As Gabriel, Williams begins and ends "The Night Listener" in the radio studio, recording the story of Pete and Donna for his listeners. Williams acts in a comfortable "Good Will Hunting" mode. He's a generous performer, which you can't say of every comic-turned-actor. In simple, expository scenes with the terrific Oh, for example, Williams puts his intuitive improvisational skills to dramatic advantage just by watching and responding. Collette plays the other key role, and while her own energy tends to overfill a character, Donna is a raw nerve (among other things) and Collette's snappish, edgy approach feels right.

Stettner errs on the side of caution: The pacing and staging of the later scenes could use a little more electricity and momentum and a little less restraint. Yet "The Night Listener" keeps you watching. And listening.


`The Night Listener'

MPAA rating: R for language and some disquieting sexual content

A Miramax Films release. Director Patrick Stettner. Screenplay by Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson and Patrick Stettner, based on the novel by Armistead Maupin. Director of photography Lisa Rinzler. Editor Andy Keir. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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