Williams, Collette give dark performances in ‘Night Listener’
When Robin Williams picks his roles, he sure likes to take chances. Not that everything he does has to mirror his comedy life, but sometimes people find it difficult to see him as a serious character.
Some of his roles are creepy ones, too, such as the man without a family in “One Hour Photo” or the deranged psychopath in “Insomnia.” When he fuses some of those elements together with humor, he is more palatable and can even get an Oscar, as was the case with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.”
In “The Night Listener,” Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a late-night radio talk show storyteller whose show is called “Noone at Night.” He has more than enough to keep his insomniac in check. A haunted past? In part, yes, but it makes for great radio actually. Gabriel draws from his life experiences to connect with others, weaving these stories in a medium that is considered intimate and personal. His performance is remarkably restrained, and there were so many times he could have played some of the scenes for laughs but he stuck to the script and delivered it straight and serious. Dare I say, a very dramatic and moving performance, too.
“The Night Listener” is adapted from the true-life events as told in Armistead Maupin’s novel of the same name. Writer/director Patrick Stettner does a good job with the material, turning it into an Alfred Hitchcock-style thriller. Gabriel has more than enough problems lately that will affect his show, including the disintegration of his relationship with his longtime lover, Jess (Bobby Cannavale). Depression takes over and there isn’t much in the way of hope to lift his spirits. Stettner plays this up as the setting for what comes next.
Gabriel’s friend and publisher, Ashe (Joe Morton), hands him a manuscript which captivates Gabriel when he starts to read the work consisting of a young, 14-year-old boy (Rory Culkin) and his chilling account of childhood sexual abuse. On top of all that the boy, “Pete,” is also stricken with AIDS.
Soon the two begin exchanging phone calls and letters and the young author finds himself a huge fan of Gabriel’s show. A bond develops over the phone until Gabriel suspects that something is horribly wrong. Maybe the mother wrote the book and wanted to get some publicity for its publication? Perhaps the mother isn’t a mother. Gabriel starts to question what the motives are, and the closer he gets to seeking out the boy, the more obstacles are placed in his path.
Enter Donna D. Logand (Toni Collete) who is a social worker (or is she?), and who may in fact be the voice of the boy in what could be a cruel hoax after all. She is the one, after all, who sent the manuscript of the boy’s account to the publishing house. So begins a wild goose chase of sorts on Gabriel’s part, as he is determined to find some answers, such as, what could possibly be her motive? Not gonna spill it, but her performance is so creepy and captivating, I wish more people would take a chance and see this movie so she can be appreciated. This is Collete’s strongest performance to date, and you start to wonder if the director waited until the moon was full to shoot her scenes – she is that weird and captivating all at once.
Although I still sometimes get a little leery of films based on novels, because the images are so well ingrained from the written page, I have to say that Williams and Collette make checking out this film worth it. Also, it didn’t hurt having author Armistead Maupin adapt the screenplay from his novel for the movie.
This movie showcases Robin Williams’ range as an actor (albeit a darker one) in a setting that we can truly appreciate. Collette’s menacing character makes you feel uncomfortable as you, the audience, start to question whom you should trust. Fueling the tension is the film’s “look,” being shot in dark, moody lighting, mostly at night. Credit Lisa Rinzler’s cinematography and Peter Nashel’s haunting score.
– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada, including the Sirius Radio Network every Sunday evening. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8.
Keepin’ it Reel
Now playing: “The Night Listener”
Starring: Toni Collette, Robin Williams, Joe Morton, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin, Sandra Oh, Rodrigo Lopresti and John Cullum
Directed by: Patrick Stettner
Rated: R for sexual situations, nudity and violent outbursts
Length: A brisk 82 minutes
Howie gives it: 4 out of 5 bagels