Night Listener, The

“The Night Listener,” writer-director Patrick Stettner's adaptation of Armistead Maupin's novel of the same title, is a semi-intriguing mystery-thriller that explores themes of identity, obsession, and sublimation. Despite major structural and narrative shortcomings, the film offers good roles to Robin Williams, as Maupin's alter ego, and Toni Collette, as a blind mother who conceals her identity as well as that of her presumably sickly genius son.

Thematically speaking, inevitable comparisons will be made with the far superior “Misery,” which also concerns a troubled relationship between a writer and a fan, and the thriller indie “One-Hour Photo,” which also starred Robin Williams.

“Night Listener” is a frustrating, scizoid thriller, whose first half is complex and ambiguous, but second half is vastly disappointing. The storytelling is flawed and the text pregnant (borderline pretentious) with meanings.

As a novel, “Night Listener” was inspired by something that actually happened to Maupin and his partner Terry Anderson back in 1992. Maupin, the celebrated San Francisco writer of the popular “Tales of the City” TV series, was sent a manuscript written by a 14-year-old boy who had suffered terrible abuse as a child, and who had been rescued by a social worker, who in turn encouraged him to write as a way of healing from his nightmare. Wishing to tell the boy how much he liked his work, Maupin began a phone friendship through the adoptive mother and the kid, who lived 3,000 miles from San Francisco in Union City, New Jersey.

Structured as a triangle of sorts, “Night Listener” the movie revolves around a popular public radio storyteller, Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), who develops an intense telephone relationship with a young listener named Pete (Rory Culkin) and his adoptive mother (Toni Collette), just as his own personal life is undergoing dramatic changes.

The film's first reel is particularly strong. It begins with Gabriel's voice-over narration: “I'm Gabriel Noone and this is Noone at Night. As a storyteller, I've spent years looting my life for fiction. Like a magpie, I tend to steal the shiny stuff, and discard the rest. The facts can always be altered, when you're telling a story, but this time, I have to be careful. I'll lay out the events exactly as I remember them. I want you to believe this, after all, and that will be hard enough as it is.”

Almost everything that needs to be known is described in the above passage. First and foremost, that “Night Listener” is as much a thriller as it is a dissection of storytelling as an art form, centering on the elements that make a good story for both the teller and his audience. Applying this dimension to the movie itself only heightens how flawed the storytelling is.

Equally important in the opening voice-over is the notion of writers' looting material from every–and any–possible corner for their work, and their willingness to sacrifice both personal and collective ethics. In this respect, “Night Listener,” just like “Capote” last year, is another sobering examination of the writer's profession with all the manipulation and deception that go into it.

It's quickly established that Gabriel's life and career are off track. We learn that his much younger, HIV-positive partner Jess (Bobby Cannavale) has just moved out “temporarily” and that Gabriel is suffering from writer's block. He also owes the radio station five stories, but no relief is in sight.

Things change when his friend Ashe (Joe Morton), a book editor, gives Gabriel a manuscript called “The Blacking Factory,” a memoir written by 14-year-old Pete Logand, which detaling the horrors of his childhood, including serial molestation by his parents and their friends.

Ashe tells Gabriel that while Pete was locked in the basement of his sadistic parents, he found comfort in listening to Gabriel's radio program. Reluctantly, Gabriel contacts Pete and a phone friendship begins. Through his stepmother Donna, Gabriel finds out that Pete has full-blown AIDS and is about to die. The frequent phone conversations over the next couple of weeks lead to Gabriel forming a close paternal bond with Pete and an amiable one with Donna.

What is about Pete that intrigues Gabriel Is it Pete's harrowing, J T LeRoy-ish memoir that's about to be published Is it because Jess, his lover of eight years, has moved out Is it because his own creative juices have dried

Maupin has called “Night Listener” a “thriller of the heart,” and, indeed, Gabriel is driven to uncharacteristic extremes to find out who Pete really is. Inexplicably, the film changes the story's original locales, and Gabriel lives in Manhattan, whereas Pete and his mom reside in small-town Wisconsin.

The film's first hour, which is full of twists and turns, is near-brilliant, establishing a creepy mood that recalls in moments “The Sixth Sense” (also starring Toni Collette as a troubled mother) and Neil Jordan's “The Crying Game,” in the film's intriguing suggestion that mother and son may be the same person; Stettner makes great use of this notion by mixing and blurring the sound and tone of their respective voices.

However, in the second half, the movie turns into a generic thriller, using all the tricks in the book, but without delivering the expected goods. “One-Hour Photo” suffered from the same problem, but at least delivered the generic goods, which may explain its commercial appeal.

Since the script is co-written by Maupin, Anderson, and Stettner, it's hard to tell who did what. “Night Listener” might be a collaborative effort that's not particularly effective, judging by the end result and the film's incoherence.

More specifically, the movie suffers from two major problems. First, it unravels too quickly its central mystery, namely, the identity of the mother; the audience is always ahead of the story, which is detrimental for a thriller. Second, and more importantly, in the last reel, the movie changes its point-of-view, shifting from the writer, who's by far the most interesting character, to the mother, who by that time has already emerged as a pathological liar.

Once Gabriel meets Donna, the movie loses its narrative drive and begins to escalate in senseless ways. The story reaches its lowest point in a preposterous scene, in which Donna tries to kill Gabriel and herself. It's too bad that the writers don't trust their audiences and feel pressure to signal and explain every aspect of the story, which in the book form maintains ambiguity throughout the end; among other faults, the picture has one too many endings.

Though containing a limited number of characters, the plot keeps changing its focus and point-of-view, not always for the better. Later in the film, when the more obvious thriller elements surface, Stettner shifts from a more subjective to a more objective, omniscient angle, giving the audience the sense that the voyeur is also being watched.

Even so, “The Night Listener” represents a quantum leap forward for Stettner, who made his feature directorial debut in 2001 with the modest, well-acted “The Business of Strangers,” a femme-empowerment melodrama co-starring Stockard Channing and Julia Styles. Rising above the limitations of his material, Stettner shows talent for a detailed and sophisticated mise-en-scene, lending the film a smooth look and fluid sound, courtesy of ace lenser Lisa Rinzler and composer Peter Nashel, respectively.

End note

“The Night Listener” may benefit from the timeliness of its source matetial. J. T. LeRoy was recently revealed to be a fictitious author, even though his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” continues to be a national best-seller.