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The Night Listener


The mysteries of fact and fiction

The origins of The Night Listener lie deep beneath layers of event and representation, which probably accounts for its reliance on versions of melodrama to tell an initially simple story of suffering, sympathy, and deception. The major writer on the film, Armistead Maupin, based the screenplay on his own novel of the same title, which itself grew out of some actual occurrences in which he played a major role. The resulting motion picture turns those narrative strata into a combination of mystery, suspense, and horror, a mingling of genres that not surprisingly also mingles their consequent emotional responses.

Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, the openly gay host of a New York radio show called "Noone at Night," one of those midnight talkers whose words provide conversation and a sort of companionship for millions of lonely listeners across the land. A storyteller, he mines his own experience for his narratives, exaggerating and transforming events, many of them deeply personal, into a kind of ongoing entertainment for an audience that feels emotionally engaged with his life and personality. The odd intimacy of confession creates a bond between him and his public that ultimately leads to a strange and obsessive relationship with a teenager and his adoptive mother.

At a crucial stage in Noone's life --- his partner of eight years, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), has moved out, causing him enormous pain --- a friend in publishing gives Noone a manuscript to read. It is the memoir of a precocious 14-year-old boy named Pete Logand entitled The Blacking Factory, in a telling reference to Dickens. It describes a lost childhood of unspeakable sexual abuse. Now living in Wisconsin with a social worker who has adopted him, Pete is dying of AIDS, a circumstance that obviously speaks to a gay New Yorker who has told many stories about his own partner's battle with the disease.

Noone calls Pete and his mother, Donna (Toni Collette), and begins a telephone relationship with the couple, both devoted fans of his show, establishing a kind of long-distance friendship with the boy. He naturally appreciates his intelligence and fortitude, but also finds something complexly appealing in the sensitive, lonely child whose presence in his life helps him cope with the heartbreak of his partner's rejection. Pete becomes a kind of surrogate son for him, someone he can console and encourage, but also someone with whom he can identify, perhaps even love.

When the publisher eventually rejects the book, Donna cuts off the connection, once again leaving Gabriel desolate and suffering. Driven by his concern for Pete's health and his own need for the relationship, he manages to find the Logands' address and journeys to Wisconsin to locate them. Once there, his amateur detective work and the recalcitrance of the local folks lead him on a string of wild goose chases before he finally locates the angry and embittered Donna, who refuses to allow him to see the now hospitalized Pete.

The curious story depends upon a series of ingenious and elaborate deceptions that fool not only Gabriel but also the citizens of rural Wisconsin, all of whom otherwise appear grossly overweight and extremely hostile (maybe it's the cheese and bratwurst). The layers of duplicity further strike a responsive chord in Gabriel, who in seeking a son discovers some truths about himself and his work, which Donna characterizes as falsehood and exploitation. His former lover even accuses him of exaggerating and inflating the facts of his illness and their relationship for the sake of his stories and his audience.

The Night Listener confronts some of the complexities of fact and fiction, suggesting that no stories are really true; that the lies we tell each other and ourselves, however, provide some solace and meaning in a dark and lonely world. Its slow development and tendency to dwell on the maudlin, unfortunately, allow Robin William his usual excruciating extraction of every drop of emotion from his character and the situation. His awkward mannerisms and frequent tears help him to maintain his long, practically unblemished, and entirely unenviable record of sentimentality as a sort of male diva of the new weepies.

The Night Listener, directed by Patrick Stettner, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.