STUDIO: Miramax
MSRP: $29.99
RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes
• Deleted scene
The Night Listener Revealed featurette

The Pitch

A guy runs up his phone bill with someone who probably doesn’t exist.

The Humans

Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Joe Morton, Sandra Oh, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin.

"Good Moooornin’ Vie- oh shit, sorry, wrong flick…"

The Nutshell

A nighttime radio DJ, Gabriel Noone (Williams), in the middle of an awkward break up with his gay lover, latches onto the story of a 14-year-old fan who has penned a manuscript about his appalling, sexually abusive childhood. The boy, Pete (Culkin), grew up being physically, mentally and sexually abused by his family until he was taken in by a social worker, Donna Logand, in a small Wisconsin town. A long-distance relationship soon develops via telephone as Noone, Pete and Donna converse to prop up one another’s spirits in the midst of their respective situations. Turns out Pete is riddled with AIDS as a result of his abuse and is in and out of hospitals, frequently at death’s door. Noone is none the wiser that something may be amiss until his former partner hears both Donna’s and Pete’s voices and surmises that they’re both the same person. Noone then begins investigating Pete and Donna closer, even flying to Wisconsin to see them in person, but is stonewalled at every turn by Donna when he tries to see his young friend, who is supposedly on his deathbed. All the while, the question is continually raised as to whether or not Pete even exists.

"…and it’s a neural net processor that superconducts at room temperature and has staggering military and cybernetic possibilities."
"Aw come on, man, next thing you’ll be telling me is that it can walk and talk and drive a semi…"

The Lowdown

I caught the real life version of this story, as told on Dateline via an interview of author Armistead Maupin, who wrote this story based on his own similar experiences. This is one of those weird instances where truth is stranger than fiction as he was also the victim of this elaborate hoax, which is still supported by morons up and down the line as they swear they’ve seen the phantom kid who managed to hang onto his deathbed for years on end as they supported him financially and spiritually. Unfortunately, I think that colored my view of Night Listener a bit as I saw it.

"So what are you wearing? Nothing, really? Oh you are nothing…kinky…"

Listener is suitably creepy and is pretty faithful to the source material. There are no major gripes on either side of the camera as writer/director Patrick Stettner builds his story well and roots his characters, particularly Noone, with a good base from which to tell the story. The performances are also, for the most part, solid, particularly Williams, who paints a picture of the disaffected Noone struggling to get through his life crisis before meeting Pete, and then becoming almost obsessed with learning the truth behind this person to whom he’s dedicated so much of his time and emotional energy. Collette is also fine in her role of the blind surrogate mother to Pete, Donna, and Donna frequently has a cunning way about her. It’s also good to see Joe Morton anytime. He doesn’t get enough good roles, but here he’s just another minor supporting character who mostly serves to get the ball rolling and not much else. Finally, if you watch Grey’s Anatomy with any regularity, you know that Sandra Oh’s talents are utterly wasted here in a role she could play if she’d been dead for five years.

"Yeah Domino’s, I’d like to get an imaginary thick crust with hypothetical pepperoni, supposed anchovies and hearsay pineapple…"

No, there are no major gripes against Listener, except for the fact that it’s just one of those movies I feel I can see once and never have to see again, nor give much consideration to after having seen it the one time. Probably knowing the real story contributed to that, and it may be a bit unfair, but that’s just how it ended up. I don’t think I could fully appreciate the story for what it was, a relatively simple yet somewhat engaging mystery. I kept thinking / hoping that maybe if Donna had whacked a couple of guys Aileen Wuornos-style or offed the kid and stuck him in a fridge somewhere, things might have been a bit more interesting. As an aside, however, when Noone went searching for Pete in Wisconsin, the isolation and bleak tone of that segment of the story reminded me very much of John Turturro’s similarly-themed drama, Fear X (covered it here). Of course it could just be because both films were set in Wisconsin.

The Package

The film looks good and sounds fine. There’s not much in the way of extras, however. There’s an 11-minute making-of: The Night Listener Revealed and a deleted scene that probably would have completely ruined the mystery if it had been kept in. The movie was definitely better without it.

6.2 out of 10