Nigh listless 

Robin Williams’s career has bounced around over the years with the unpredictability and speed of one of his stream-ofconsciousness monologues — and unlike the best of those rants, it has often made its unexpected landings in really, really unsatisfying places. Tired of broad family comedies? He’ll try a sappy wonder-of-life piece like What Dreams May Come. Tired of those misfires? He goes dark in Death to Smoochy.

The Night Listener, viewed strictly as a vehicle for him, is one of the best choices the actor has made in a decade and a half. Williams gets to explore his quiet side, but is given little opportunity for mawkishness; he’s not responsible for making anyone laugh, nor does he have to convince you he’s sinister. The role is full-bodied and subtle, and for that you can credit the fact that he’s the alter-ego of an author with his share of literary cred, Tales of the City’s Armistead Maupin.

Williams plays Gabriel Noone, whose Noone at Night radio program features stories based on his life. Suffering a split from his partner Jess (Bobby Cannavale — it’s a little entertaining to see a gay man portrayed by the he-man lug of The Station Agent), Noone is struggling to keep writing when a hell of a story falls into his lap: A potent novel from Pete Logand, a Wisconsin teenager who survived a torturous childhood. Noone is drawn to Pete, and is soon having daily long-distance chats that seem to do both some good — until someone suggests that Pete may be a phantom, the invention of someone who’s just hungry for attention. Doubt gnaws at Noone until he has to trek out to the boonies to find out for himself.

Unfortunately, what makes the role good for Williams — a lack of extremes, basically — doesn’t necessarily make the plot perfect for the cineplex. The movie starts off in a quiet mood reflecting its title, and gets so comfortable there that it can’t rouse itself even when it’s pretty sure it needs to.

In the hands of most directors, The Night Listener would play like a fairly conventional thriller, with a few shock cuts and a lot of creepy obsession. But director Patrick Stettner is more cerebral; his feature debut, The Business of Strangers, worked up an impressive amount of tension without resorting to generic Hollywood moves, and you can feel him trying to repeat the feat here. He certainly has the cast for it, and the relationship-by-phone device is promising. But the extra baggage of Maupin’s plot — the supporting characters, multiple locations — bring Listener out of the claustrophobic world of Strangers, and the tension doesn’t translate. The plot just seems to want to be a more conventional, more lousy movie than Stettner hopes to make. In the end, the opposing forces meet somewhere in the middle, satisfying nobody.

The Night Listener
Dir. Patrick Stettner; writ. Armistead Maupin
(book), Terry Anderson, Stettner; feat.
Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh,
Rory Culkin, Bobby Cannavale, Joe Morton,
John Cullum (R)

More by John DeFore

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