As far as topicality goes, The Night Listener’s account of authorial deception certainly benefits from its parallels to the recent outing of JT Leroy as a fraud. As far as enhancing its thrills, however, such similarities are of little use, as Patrick Stettner’s mystery fails to replicate the exploitative tawdriness of Leroy’s phony work or compensate for this deficiency with rational suspense. Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is a late-night radio talk show host who strip-mines his personal life—specifically, his years-long romance to now-former boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale)—for slightly exaggerated on-air stories. Given an autobiographical manuscript about childhood abuse, Noone, whose name holds the key to the central narrative secret, soon strikes up a telephone friendship with its writer, a dying 14-year-old named Pete (Rory Culkin) living in Wisconsin with his foster mother Donna (Toni Collette), though Noone’s questions about the veracity of Pete’s horrific tale soon compel him to embark on a first-person investigation into the teen’s claims. Co-scripted by Armistead Maupin and based on his own book, Stettner’s film yearns to be a chilling exploration of identity and the blurred boundary between fiction and reality, with Noone’s professional penchant for embellishing his own past linked with Donna’s apparent spuriousness, and such concerns embodied by the quite beautiful opening credit sequence’s morphing kaleidoscopic image of human hands and faces. Yet rather than allowing its themes to emerge naturally from its premise, The Night Listener instead periodically resorts to hand-holding exposition as an explicatory device for Noone’s infatuation with Pete, which is alternately depicted as being driven by a longing for a replacement for Jess (who, like Pete, is HIV-positive) as well as for a surrogate son. Even more detrimental than the film’s unduly transparent subtext, however, is its distinctly limp tension, a shortcoming augmented by Williams and Collette’s inability to flesh out sketchily conceived roles, but one mainly attributable to plot developments either excessively convenient or, in the case of Noone’s breaking-and-entering escapades and the subsequent police brutality he suffers, exceptionally absurd.
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