Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is a night-owl Manhattan DJ who's made a career of recycling the juicy, artful details of his life into compelling anecdotes for his listeners. His audience naturally feels a connection to Gabriel, especially after he's recounted such painful personal experiences as his love affair with a man (Bobby Cannavale) dying of AIDS.
But Gabriel also is an embellisher who picks and chooses incidents from his life to present to his listeners. And it is that crime that fate seems to condemn him for in the tediously grim thriller The Night Listener.
Gabriel meets his storytelling match in 14-year-old Pete (Rory Culkin), who claims to have been sexually abused as a child and now reaches out to Gabriel as he, too, lies dying from AIDS.
Along with M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, The Night Listener is another tepid gothic, in this case a Hitchcock wannabe with a supermarket tabloid heart and a tiresome plot that may bore audiences more than spook them. As an anecdote passed around the dinner party table, the story behind The Night Listener must have been a real humdinger for screenwriter Armistead Maupin, adapting his own novel. But for a film made in the age of other notorious pants-on-fire scandals, The Night Listener is sorely lacking.
This is the era, after all, that gave us faux-author JT LeRoy, whose work also centered on a similar horrific tale of child sexual abuse, and James Frey's questionable "memoir" A Million Little Pieces. This rash of invented memoirs and the desire to gain notoriety from personal tragedy is an idea that connects not only Gabriel and Pete, but also the film's screenwriter, Maupin, working from his own experiences.
But The Night Listener is a story that unfolds in a bell jar, disconnected from the world we live in, with little to say about what a compulsion to lie and embellish may say about us. The film is incapable or simply uninterested in commenting on a society that hangs on such tales of horrific abuse, as if wanting its worst fears about humanity to be confirmed.
As the film unfolds, Pete and Gabriel embark on a long-distance telephone relationship. Gabriel's dour mood seems to temporarily lift at the thought of offering support to the damaged Pete, being cared for by a foster mother, Donna (Toni Collette), living in a small Wisconsin town. While Gabriel is willing to wholeheartedly embrace Pete, others are more skeptical. Gabriel's lover thinks the kid is a put-on.
And so Gabriel boards a flight for Wisconsin to get to the bottom of the Pete mystery. There he meets the exquisitely creepy Donna, a blind woman with greasy hair, a body draped in limp sweaters and a manner that goes from needy to vicious in a split second. Collette's gross-out performance is a momentary distraction from the uneventful, grim banality that defines the film, but like much here, it trades character development for cheap thrills.
Suggesting aspirations to Psycho, The Night Listener is unfortunately more Jacob's Ladder with an artless, claustrophobic ambiance that traps us inside Gabriel's solitary gloom without telling us much about his point of view.
Part of the film's problem is Williams, who maintains a constant depressive shuffle that never changes pitch. His performance is the quintessence of one-note, never modulating according to circumstances. It is impossible to imagine radio listeners really hanging on to this terminal sad sack's every word.
In Stettner's previous indie gem, 2001's The Business of Strangers, it was the versatile Stockard Channing's performance that carried the film. But Williams is simply not an actor up to the task of pulling off a dramatic role like Gabriel, or offering anything to distract from the gloomy tail-chasing that passes for a plot in The Night Listener.