“The Night Listener” tests the waters

The opening sequence rolled with a kaleidoscope view of contorted faces as an ominous tune composed of string instruments and piano keys haunted the audience, paralyzing us all with anxiety. As scores go, this one was definitely chilling at minimum. Armistead Maupin’s much anticipated return to screenwriting arrives as “The Night Listener”, a story centered on Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a popular late-night radio story teller who develops a father/son relationship with an adolescent listener named Pete (Rory Culkin) and his adoptive mother Donna (Toni Collette).

Pete, who has contracted HIV as a result of his birth parent’s abhorrent sexual deviance, succeeds in having his autobiography published. The memoir is so well written, and Gabriel’s comrade Anna (Sandra Oh) so suspicious, that the question of whether the book could’ve possibly been written by someone Pete’s age—and the question of whether Pete even exists, both arise. From then on, Gabriel takes on the challenge of proving to Anna, and himself, that Pete is indeed flesh and blood.

Something odd that I’ve noticed of Robin Williams’ films, and of Williams in interviews (e.g. the most recent Jay Leno interview), is his proverbial use of the word “magpie.” Somehow he always manages to introduce the word into a conversation or into dialogue, with this film being no exception. Robin is not quite convincing in this role as a gay man, he acts more as a man who partners with men as a matter of consequence rather than orientation. Rory Culkin as Pete is the spitting image of his innocently beautiful, blonder, older brother. A fact that is most prominent with an overhead shot which canvasses Culkin’s frame from toe to crown. This particular scene, with Pete talking to Gabriel by phone while lying on his bed, is a strikingly odd one. It seems to attempt to sexualize Pete, whom we’ve been conditioned to view as a child victim of rape. While watching, I attributed Culkin’s voicing of the character to bad acting, but the voice eventually meshes with the plot.

Classic is Toni Collette as Donna, a protector with her own frailties. Collette treats the audience to a surprising instance of laugh-out-loud humor, which serves as a welcomed break from the suspense. There’s no doubt that some inspiration for “Donna” was taken from Kathy Bates’ “Annie Wilkes” in “Misery” (1990).

The movie means to catch the audience off guard with the fact that Gabriel, as the main character, is openly gay. “Whoo-whee girl!” could be heard when Gabriel finally locked lips with his younger Latin lover (Bobby Cannavale) after a few teasers--thrown in, apparently, for an audience who still needs to be warned before two men kiss onscreen. Not true to form though, this debonair dark hair with a 5 o’clock shadow, is also the brain of the relationship and not just the body. The exploration of the ins and outs of Jess and Gabriel’s relationship played sort of like a test to see how much audiences would allow themselves to care about the trials of a same-sex couple. If indeed Maupin presented the film as a covert test of the waters to decide whether or not the time to present more Queer Cinema to the mainstream is now, his questions were certainly answered by the responses of the viewing audience. Even a pride sticker on a window in the distance gets a response. My complaints? Maupin could’ve stretched it out a bit, using the time to give characters more depth. The cinematography was dull; no one scene was especially distinguishable from the next without variation in lighting or noticeable props.

A male flight attendant who gushes over Gabriel because of the things he’s done for “us” is borderline offensive because the lines are delivered from a stereotypically gay character, and with an implied sarcasm that belittles what could’ve been a genuine moment. Had the delivery been more earnest and the flight attendant a more subdued, the gesture might have been appreciated by a GLBT audience.

Yes, I know a gay guy wrote it, which only makes it worse. Should you shell out the dough to see it? Certainly. Because although Maupin’s old school underwear are showing (clearly a movie made by someone who is not totally accustomed to the present queer culture), the underwear don’t distract us from the cute outfit.

The Night Listener
Miramax Films

Grade Scale: B+
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Release: August 4, 2006
Rating: R
Runtime: 91 min.

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