The Night Listener
Fictitious story based on a true lie can’t find the reality of its fabrication
The Night Listener
Directed by Patrick Stettner
Cast: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Rory Culkin
Has America become a nation of liars? You might think so watching the evening news. Politicians, of late, have raised deception to a high art form (with Dick “I Have Not Suggested There is a Connection Between Iraq and 9/11” Cheney as the Picasso of Prevarication). Notorious newspaper man Jason Blair proved you don’t have to leave your apartment to be a good reporter, while infamous author James Frey showed you can deceive some of the people some of the time, but it’s not nice to fool Mother Oprah. Famed transgendered, teenage, HIV-positive author/screenwriter JT Leroy (The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Gus van Sant’s Elephant) was, in late 2005, revealed to be a 40-year-old woman from Brooklyn named Laura Albert. Earlier this year, much-praised Native American memoirist Nasdijj (The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, The Boy and His Dog are Sleeping, Geronimo’s Bones) was exposed as a mere fabrication of gay-erotica writer Timothy Patrick Barrus.
Certainly not everyone in our nation is a liar--perhaps not even a large percentage. But, given the evidence clogging up today’s pop culture, it would seem confabulation is suddenly the hip thing to do. Lie and the world lies with you.
Several years ago, author Armistead Maupin (best known for his six-book series Tales of the City) found himself entangled in a web of confusion and controversy. Maupin began a friendship with Anthony Godby Johnson, a teenage boy who chronicled his abusive childhood in the startling 1993 autobiography A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story. Allegedly abused, raped and afflicted with AIDS as a child, Anthony went on to befriend a host of literary stars such as National Book Award winner Paul Monette, who encouraged his writing, and Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” who wrote an afterword for A Rock and a Hard Place.
Eventually, Maupin and others began to suspect that maybe they’d been hornswoggled--that Anthony was merely a fictional creation of his “adoptive” mother, Vicki Fraginals. To this day, no one other than Fraginals has actually seen Anthony. In 2000, Maupin spun his involvement in the Johnson saga into a roman à clef called The Night Listener.
Now, the book has been turned into a movie and, sad to report, it’s not nearly as interesting as the “true” story.
Robin Williams (in contrite “serious actor” mode) stars as Gabriel Noone, a mopey author and radio show host whose late-night broadcasts consist of Garrison Keillor-ish autobiographical stories. Noone has recently broken up with his longtime male companion (Bobby Cannavale, now Hollywood’s go-to gay boyfriend after his “Will & Grace” stint). Still smarting from the emotional situation, our sad-sack protagonist finds distraction in a manuscript slipped to him by his literary agent. The manuscript is for a nonfictional autobiography by a 14-year-old author named Pete Logand. In it, the wünderkind author makes outrageous and disturbing claims about ritual childhood abuse at the hands of his sadistic parents.
Stunned by the maturity of the writing, Noone begins a telephone friendship with young Pete (played by Rory Culkin). Perhaps it is a result of Noone’s sudden loneliness or perhaps it’s simply his blind love for a well-spun yarn, but it’s soon up to others to point out a few rather obvious inconsistencies in Pete’s story--chiefly, the fact that both Pete and his adoptive mother Donna (Toni Collette) have eerily similar voices.
Obsessed with finding out the “truth,” Noone eventually takes a trip to the hinterlands of Wisconsin to locate the boy in the flesh.
Patrick Stettner (director of the rather thuddingly controversial 2001 thriller The Business of Strangers) tries to mutate the story into a dark and mysterious thriller. For a while, the intriguing plotline is enough to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. But, eventually, the Hitchcock act wears thin. After all, there’s really not much at stake here.
Although the script intimates on one or two occasions that maybe some sort of Psycho-inspired horror film is about to erupt, that’s simply not the case. In fact, by the halfway point, this slow-paced film has thrown so many red herrings at viewers and lied to us in such a bald-faced manner, that it’s hard to care what message the filmmakers are trying to impart. By the time the film’s ambiguous and unrevealing ending shows up, most viewers will feel cheated for having moved to the edge of their seats in the first place. There’s simply no payoff.
Given the current debate over literary license, The Night Listener could have been a meaty examination of reality, imagination and the hazy area in between. But no. The characters are thinly drawn, making their actions mysterious and largely unmotivated. The director allows so many visual and storytelling cheats onto the screen that the plot simply crumbles. And the repetitive score, with its plunking piano, only succeeds in dragging down an already somber tone. ... Hey, if you’re gonna lie to the people, at least make it an entertaining lie.