The harrowing memoir that fuels the central intrigue of Armistead Maupin’s novel “The Night Listener” has much in common with the writings of JT LeRoy in its raw account of childhood sexual exploitation and its lingering consequences. And given how much film blurs the lines between truth and fiction in attempting to ascertain the author’s identity, it seems appropriate that the story arrives onscreen just weeks after LeRoy was exposed as a fraud. But timeliness is not enough to endow Patrick Stettner’s tediously solemn film with tension or dramatic texture, casting a pall on its commercial outlook.
Coming so soon after LeRoy was unmasked as a fictitious figure, and after author James Frey owned up to embellishing the facts in his bestselling memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” a swift release could significantly expand the film’s editorial coverage. (U.S. rights were still available at Sundance; IFC Films provided financing but has not committed to distribution.) However, “Night Listener’s” remarkable relevance to the current debate about literary license simply underlines what a missed opportunity this is.
Given the sharp edges, psychological complexity and chilly mood of his stylish 2001 debut feature, “The Business of Strangers,” Stettner seemed a fine choice to direct Maupin’s twisty tale of a radio host dealing with the end of a relationship while investigating the origins of a troubling manuscript (Maupin was inspired by his own entanglement with a literary hoax). But the qualities that distinguished Stettner’s earlier work — including the ability to elicit compelling, thorny performances — are largely elusive here.
One problem is a by-the-numbers screenplay adapted by Maupin, Terry Anderson and Stettner, which shifts the initial action from San Francisco to New York to no apparent gain. The miscasting of Robin Williams as radio personality Gabriel Noone is another.
Gabriel combs through his life for elements that can be spun into good stories. In addition to his own experiences, his long-term boyfriend Jess’ (Bobby Cannavale) struggle to overcome HIV has fed the personal tales Gabriel recounts to listeners of his popular late night show. But when Jess chooses to embrace his independence after his health improves, Gabriel’s creative well runs dry.
A publisher friend, Ashe (Joe Morton), gives Gabriel a manuscript to read, in which 14-year-old Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) chronicles his shocking abuse at the hands of sadistic parents. An avid fan of Gabriel’s show, the boy contacts him soon after and a phone friendship develops. Their talks are punctuated by reports from Pete’s protective stepmother, Donna (Toni Collette), of the AIDS-afflicted boy’s rapidly deteriorating health.
When Gabriel begins to suspect that Donna and Pete may be the same person, he voices his skepticism to Ashe, who confirms that no one has actually met the boy. Feeling responsible when the publishing house backs away from a deal on Pete’s book, Gabriel travels to the Logands’ home in small-town Wisconsin to find the truth.
Aiming for unsettling atmosphere over character definition, the dawdling mystery thriller manages to flatten two protagonists that had far more depth in the novel.
Williams’ Gabriel is all tormented half-smiles, crinkled eyes and wounded nobility. We’re told that his storyteller’s instinct and eagerness to absorb material for his own creative use make him not unlike chronic fabulist Donna. But there’s little in Williams’ one-note performance to suggest anything beyond the generic obsession of an amateur sleuth.
The normally dependable Collette plays a character so unsatisfyingly developed that it’s hard to care much about the haunted woman or the veracity of her claims, despite the screenplay’s belabored efforts to tease out the uncertainty.
Cannavale, Culkin and Sandra Oh as Gabriel’s accountant all do fine within the limited scope of their roles.
Lenser Lisa Rinzler gives the film a somber, elegant look, and Peter Nashel’s score adds a layer of intensity. But it takes more than a few brooding strings to make a film taut and tense. The pace drags increasingly, trudging through the protracted final reels to a clumsy wrap-up with too many concluding scenes, none of them effective.