Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Ordinary Gays are the highlight of ‘The Night Listener’
I laughed upon hearing the complaint from a middle-aged woman exiting an advance showing of filmmaker Patrick Stettner’s suspense drama “The Night Listener.”
“They could have told us sooner that Robin Williams was gay !” she complained to everyone within earshot.
In the movie, Williams pushes his funnyman antics aside to play Gabriel, a New York-based author and late-night radio host who’s unhappy in life and facing a creative block. Everything changes for Gabriel when a troubled young writer (Rory Culkin) shares his manuscript with him. The boy’s autobiographical story is one of sexual abuse and life-threatening danger. Gabriel is intrigued, perhaps slightly obsessed, and travels to Wisconsin to meet the teenage writer.
The problem, as pointed out by Gabriel’s former partner (Bobby Cannavale) and friend (Sandra Oh) is that the boy may not exist. He may be a JT Leroy-inspired hoax concocted by his guardian (Toni Collette). To the end of his journey, Gabriel remains unconvinced of the lie.
What bothered the woman in the next aisle is what I liked best about “The Night Listener,” a glossy trinket of a movie with little substance beneath its visual shine.
Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin (“Tales of the City”), Gabriel’s sexual orientation is portrayed with matter-of-factness. He’s one of many ordinary gays in the film. It’s a trait, no different from Williams’ boyish brown hair and bulging Buddha belly. It’s no big deal and that’s a wonderful thing, to think that American independent film has reached a point where homosexuality is no longer a source of high drama or campy laughs. In “The Night Listener,” Gabriel's sexual life is just part of the background.
Everything else about Stettner’s sophomore feature, his follow up to the enjoyable “The Business of Strangers,” is a little less than ordinary. Williams is steady but subdued to the point of transparency. One never understands Gabriel’s true thoughts about the boy. Is it love, or envy over the manuscript? There’s not enough substance in Williams’ performance to provide an answer. Stettner worked with Maupin and Terry Anderson on adapting the novel; so he holds the majority of blame for the lack of spark and accomplishment by the end of the film.
I know I praised Stettner for treating Gabriel’s homosexuality with complete nonchalance. But that doesn’t mean I wanted him to be blasé throughout the film.
“The Night Listener” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Miramax Films released it in theaters across the U.S. August 4.