Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Night Listener (2006)

I definitely have mixed feelings about Robin Williams. I quite liked a few of his earliest films, like "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), but then found it increasingly difficult to appreciate his mile-a-minute motormouth performances. These were then followed by the saccharine excesses of movies like "Patch Adams" (1998) and "Jakob the Liar" (1999) which were nearly unwatchable. Granted he has now cleaned up his act and gone for darker material, but there is still the occasional frenetic style that alienates me. Even when he is being still, there is little quiet or understated about his technique.

So why you may ask did I not only watch the above film but also choose to write about it? Well, being the good little film buff that I am, I watch nearly anything going that I have not seen previously; this is my admitted mission statement. And I must confess that this movie kept me watching as I tried to work out where it was going and how it would end. Based on a novel by Armistead Maupin, who also had a hand in the screenplay, it is supposedly based on actual events that happened to him, although I have no idea if that is fact or fiction. Williams plays a radio storyteller called Gabriel Noone, whose show 'Noone at Night' has a dedicated, syndicated audience. The plot opens with his having problems concentrating on his work, as his long-term partner, Jess, has just left him. We only gradually realise that Jess is male and that the character is a flag-waver for gay rights -- much like the author.

An associate gives him the unpublished manuscript of a 14-year old boy from Wisconsin who suffered years of abuse by paedophiles egged on by his own parents and who is in the final stages of AIDS, a disease from which Jess is now apparently recovering. He has been adopted by a carer, played by Toni Collette, and the two begin a long-distance telephone relationship with Williams, since the boy is a big fan of the spooky tales that he tells on air. Williams becomes more and more involved in the boy's life and health-care problems, until Jess points out that the voices of the boy and his carer are uncannily similar. Williams is determined to investigate the truth, but an invitation to spend Christmas with them is withdrawn and he becomes increasingly worried when their telephone number becomes unobtainable.

So he picks himself up and flies out to Wisconsin and the small town in the boondocks where they are living, only to find that the address he has for them is an accommodation address. However he follows up various clues and finally locates Collette, who it turns out is blind; however there is no sign of the lad, despite the fact that all of the locals know about him, although no one admits to actually having met him. His relationship with Collette becomes more and more fraught as she puts various obstacles in his way and finally says that the boy has just died. He returns to New York uncertain as to whether the boy ever existed, but the possibility is left open until the very end of the movie with its unexpected shock twist. The film does not go for the easy answers that a viewer might anticipate and continually underplays the tale. Williams is unusually restrained in the part, despite his growing confusion, but the acting kudos probably should go to Collette.
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