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About a Boy

Absence Of Thrills, Mystery Sinks This Supposed Mystery Thriller

BEAR-LY TOLERABLE: (from left) Robin Williams drives away Bobby Cannavale, who's probably too cute for him anyway.

The Night Listener

Director:Patrick Stettner
Cast:Toni Collette, Robin Williams, Joe Morton, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin, Sandra Oh
Release Date:2006
Genre:Drama, Suspense

Opens Aug. 4

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/2/2006

What kind of obsession would cause a grown man to travel by plane and rental car from New York to a remote small town in Wisconsin to learn if a 14-year-old boy really exists? Thatís the question that The Night Listener asks but never answers. Robin Williams, who plays the man in question, is so mousy and passive that his character appears to be acting on a mere whim rather than an all-consuming passion. As a result, the movie makes no sense.

Armistead Maupin, the popular author of Tales of the City, maintains that his 2000 novel, The Night Listener, was based on actual events. In 1992, he was given a manuscript by Anthony Godby Johnson, a 14-year-old child-abuse and AIDS victim. Maupin found the book, A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boyís Triumphant Story, so moving that he wrote a blurb for the book and struck up a telephone friendship with the teenage writer.

Or so he thought. Eventually he began to doubt whether the boy really existed and even traveled from San Francisco to New Jersey to find out. Several observers concluded that both the boy and the book were created by his putative mother, Vicki Johnson. Maupinís novel changed the names and some details but otherwise stuck to the facts of the case. Maupin, his longtime partner, Terry Anderson, and director Patrick Stettner have now adapted that novel into a screenplay, rearranging the geography in the process.

While few remember Johnson, many recall J.T. Leroy, the alleged author of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, two memoirs about a 12-year-old male prostitute in West Virginia. That author was also revealed as a ruse, the creation of writer Laura Albert. So Maupinís screenplay has a juicy currency; itís a chance to examine the psychological forces behind those who perpetrate such literary hoaxes and those who fall for them. Unfortunately, itís a squandered opportunity, thanks to Williamsí underwhelming performance and Stettnerís underwhelming direction.

Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and a nervous squint, Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a writer famous for reading his short stories on a New York public-radio station. Lately, though, Gabe has been an emotional wreck because his longtime boyfriend, Jess (the younger, hunky Bobby Cannavale), is moving out for a "trial separation." So when his editor pal Ashe (Joe Morton in a bow tie) hands over a manuscript from an abused, HIV+ 14-year-old, Gabe finds an emotional connection that he has been starving for.

Before long, Gabe is calling Pete, the Wisconsin youngster, and Donna, his adoptive mom, on a regular basis, exclaiming how much he likes the book and how heíd like to promote it. Itís Jess who points out that the mother and son have eerily similar voices, and Ashe admits that no one has ever met the young writer. When Gabe starts asking questions, Donna gets defensive and then hysterical. Is she defending an already abused son or covering up a lie?

The script insists that Gabe is willing to fork out for an airplane ticket, rental car, and motel room to find out, but thereís nothing in Williamsí performance that supports such drastic action. The more the whining, self-pitying Gabe asks Jess why heís leaving, the more Gabe answers his own question. The more he takes the same tone with Donna, the more reasonable her caution seems. This passive-aggressive sad sack is the least likely person to take bold action, and it seems he does so only because the screenplay requires it.

In M. Night Shyamalanís The Sixth Sense, Toni Collette played the mother of a son who may or may not have been there, and she plays another such mother in The Night Listener. Wearing long red hair, dowdy dresses, and the milky glaze of a blind woman, Collette gives her usual superb performance as Donna. Her ferocious defense of her sonís privacy suggests that the line between parental concern and irrationality is not as clear cut as we might like to think.

Unfortunately, director Stettner doesnít share Shyamalanís skill at manipulating music and cinematography to draw us completely into an imagined world. He has no patience for creating atmosphere or letting a scene build, and plot points zip by without giving us a reason to care. Moreover, Stettner lacks Shyamalanís knack for keeping an audience guessing and gives away the plotís ultimate explanation much too soon. As a result, the last 20 minutes of The Night Listener are pointlessly anticlimactic--not that the first 71 minutes are exactly riveting.

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