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The Night Listener (0/10)

by Tony Medley

Armistead Maupin, who had apparently just broken up with his boyfriend, was sent a manuscript by a 14-year-old boy who alleged lots of sexual abuse. Maupin initiated telephone conversations with him and then started to doubt the boy’s existence. From that came a novel, “The Night Listener.”

I didn’t read the novel. If it’s anything like this movie, I thank God I avoided it. This is a downer from the word “go,” with no visible raison d’ętre. It’s heralded as a mystery. Director Patrick Stettner and screenwriter Maupin (and his former boyfriend Terry Anderson) should have realized that the success of the film depends on an ending that does not answer the question as to the existence of the boy, which this film does.

Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is a host of a radio show who has been dumped by his boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale). He gets a manuscript like Maupin’s manuscript, makes a telephone call, speaks with both the boy, Pete D. Logand (Rory Culkin), and his mother, Donna (Toni Collette). Jess hears tapes of the conversations and says that the voices sound the same, leading Gabriel on an odyssey to try to meet Pete to prove his existence, traveling to Wisconsin to try to find Pete and Donna. The rest of the film is about this quest.

Collette does a good job as Donna, given the weakness of the script. Williams is following the trend of his career of playing one goofy character after another.

I can’t imagine why anybody would want to see this film. It’s not tense. It’s not scary. It could have been a terrific gothic thriller, but it’s not because the talent just isn’t there. There is one really ludicrous scene on the highway between Gabriel and Donna where a truck almost runs them down. The truck is traveling at night but it’s a clear night and the truck’s lights are on. The truck driver can clearly see both Gabriel and Donna in the middle of the road, but it doesn’t slow down even a skosh. It just blasts its horn and barrels on down the road, leaving it up to Gabriel and Donna to try to get out of the way. Instead of scary, this was so ludicrous I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. It was, alas, the only time I laughed in the entire film.

Clearly lots of work went into the making of this film. What could have made this film better? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Their protagonist, Robin Williams, is just so self-pitying he is completely unsympathetic. I didn’t care what happened to him. I never cared if he was in danger or putting himself in danger. They should have created a sympathetic protagonist so that we would worry about his well-being.
  2. They were unable to create tension and danger with the house where Donna lived. That takes a special type of cinematic talent. The one I felt was best at it was Alfred Hitchcock, and the scene that epitomizes the way he could create tension out of a location is in “Foreign Correspondent” when Joel McRae goes out to the old windmill. I’ll never forget the sense of danger I felt when that old windmill came on the screen. It was screaming, “stay away!” Of course, the one that everyone remembers is Norman Bates’ house in Psycho. But Hitch also created the same tension for mere locations in other movies, like “North by Northwest,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” (the second one in 1955 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day), and others. The house in your picture should have been frightening, but it wasn’t, and that is due in large part to the cinematography and the audio, as far as I can determine. Remember the sound of the squeaky windmill in “Foreign Correspondent?” The sounds of Norman Bates’ house? Remember the audio when Martin Balsam gets stabbed and falls down the stairs? There are no scary sounds relating to the house in 'Listener. Make the stairs squeak. Have some menacing music. They could also have created tension in the location of the coffee shop. Remember the danger you felt when Spencer Tracy walked into the bar in "Bad Day at Black Rock?" Just being in that bar made you nervous for him. I never felt that Williams was in danger when he was in the coffee shop. We should have felt that he was walking on a tightrope the entire time he was looking for Donna.
  3. They should not have let the audience know whether or not the boy existed at the end of the film.  It would have been much, much better to leave the question up in the air. By answering the question, they rob the movie of all its lingering doubt, and that doubt is the main part of the enjoyment of the film.

I walked out of this tedious film knowing the answer and regretting the time I wasted.

June 16, 2006