Video Vault: The Night Listener

The Night Listener
2006 – Patrick Stettner
Rated R: 81 minutes
Vault Rating: 7

Cast: Robin Williams – Gabriel Noone
Toni Collette – Donna D. Logand
Rory Culkin – Pete D. Logand
Bobby Cannavale – Jess
Joe Morton – Ashe
Sandra Oh – Anna

There are several things I like about today’s tidy little suspenser, “The Night Listener.” Foremost is the way the film builds with no frills in just over an hour straight to its payoff. In this respect, it acts like Edgar Allen Poe’s very definition of the way a good short story should act: One plot, one theme, no (mess)ing around.

Thus, the spacing and pacing of this movie just feels right. We start out with a simple premise: A national radio talk show host’s (Robin Williams) personal life is falling apart and he begins a telephone friendship with Pete Logand, a young male listener (Rory Culkin) apparently dying of AIDS.

The boy’s story is a sordid one full of abuse. He has somehow come to grips with his situation and admires Gabriel Noone’s public work on gay issues. Noone, in a way like Pete, spends his late night broadcasts mining his past for interesting bits that he presents on air like moody scenes from a woebegone life.

When the boy’s story turns up in manuscript form on the desk of Noone’s agent (Joe Morton) Noone is compelled to visit the boy’s family in rural Wisconsin. But something here isn’t right. There are pieces of the boy’s well-crafted story that cause a good deal of tension and the plot takes on a kind of “Play Misty for Me” feel.

The film’s handling of gay themes is comfortably subdued so as to lay the foundation of a concise script without hindering the enjoyment of it’s orderly building of tension.

One of the spies here in the Vault noted that Mr. Williams looked uncomfortable in the role of a gay man. I disagree. I think Williams, who shines as a dramatic actor, effectively portrayed an uncomfortable man. Mr. Williams, if I hit my mark here, is transmitting his uneasiness to the viewer. That’s a good thing that adds to the short, smooth dynamic of the picture.

In a day where filmmakers tend to feel they need a full two hours or more to tell their story before they add the bonus disc, it is nice to take in a film that concisely tells its story and rolls the credits. It brings to mind films of, say, 1940s Hollywood that didn’t overplay their hand, running just wide of the hour mark. I think that used to be more common.

This is not to say that great films can’t be patient and take their time, either. It would be nice if filmmakers trusted their audiences to be able to sit still for more than, say, three hours at a time.

All in all, though, today’s feature is a nice effort. It neither features jaw-dropping action nor chase scenes, thank you. It doesn’t shine brightly. It merely makes its case using Mr. Williams’s and your curiosity as the bait. I think you’ll take the bait as willingly as did I.

Just a note before we peddle on about a very good Discovery Channel show that you ought to be TiVoing. The series is called “Planet Earth” and it took something like five years to produce with scads of crews scouring the globe for jaw-dropping footage the likes of which has never been seen before.

The first installment, “Pole to Pole,” features a wicked scene of a great white shark going airborne with teeth blazing in super slow motion as it catches a seal. There is an incredibly strange and humorous sequence of African elephants swimming in deep water. Wild dogs are captured elegantly from the air as they methodically use their numbers in pursuit of a better lunch.

In the second installment, “Mountains,” first-ever footage is captured of the beautiful and rare snow leopard on the hunt. The curiosities of wild pandas are examined and much more.

If you like nature shows on steroids, this’ll be your cup of tea. I’ve seldom seen its cinematic equal.

And until I finally get to see “Dreamgirls” … Enjoy!

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Toni Collette portrays a dying boy’s blind mother as she meets Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) in today’s Video Vault feature, “The Night Listener.”

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