Dir: Patrick Stettner. US. 2006. 90mins.
Robin Williams' great talent for mimicry,improvisation and change of pace has yielded some resourceful and inspired performancesin his comically inflected films. But in recent years his work has turned inward,with results that have been bluntly predictable and mannered: witness hisappearances in Insomnia, One Hour Photo and The Final Cut.
It is something repeated in PatrickStettner's ungainly The Night Listener, adapted from Armistead Maupin's same-named autobiographicalnovel. Stettner showed great instincts in his first feature,the 2001 Sundance competition title The BusinessOf Strangers, a viciously clever examination ofsexual politics and corporate culture. Here, however, he appears fatally unsureof what to make of his material, as if continually switching between a black comedy,a detective story, a horror show and a Hitchcock stylisation.
The film premiered at Sundance,and the reserved audience response suggests it may face challenges in an overcrowdedmarketplace. International prospects are not very promising, although Williams'profile - admittedly lower than a decade ago - may help.
Gabriel Noone(Williams) a prominent writer and radio host, is depressedby the break up of his eight-year relationship with the young, handsome Jess (Cannavale). He finds apparent solace through his developingfriendship with Pete (Culkin), one of his callers anda precociously gifted 14-year-old writer, whose book about his adolescent sexualexploitation is about to be published by Ashe (Morton).
Noone's only conduit to the young boy is Donna (Collette), thechild's protective adopted mother, and their exchanges occur entirely by phone.Spurred by doubts raised by Jess, Gabrielle becomes increasingly sceptical aboutPete's identity - particularly because nobody has met the boy. An attempt to turnup earlier accounts of his child molestation case also proves futile.
At this point Noone travels to Wisconsin and engages in a series of surveillanceactions and countermoves with Donna in his desperate effort to authenticate Pete'sexistence.
It is then that what promisinglybegan as an account of a writer exacting the emotional consequences of the peoplewhose lives he vicariously partakes becomes a studiously creepy, standard chasemovie.
Several scenes - as when Gabriellehides in a hospital to evade police - throw the movie off-balance: just imaginethe dread of The Sixth Sense shiftinginto the paranoia of Fatal Attraction.
Williams dominates the film buthis performance is drained of life, and ensures that the feature can never reallygain a foothold. The excellent secondary cast - including John Sayles regular JoeMorton - suffer from seriously underwritten parts, with none given much opportunityto showcase their talents.
In The Business Of Strangers, Stettner used the glass and steel architecture to create a seriesof interesting visual patterns of entrapment. Here however the photography, as befitsthe feature's title, ensures the film unfolds in near constant forms of darkness(at one unimaginative point he uses a power cut as a plot development). Such black-on-blackcompositions eventually coalesce to create an oppressive and unrelenting atmosphere.
Hart Sharp Entertainment
Independent Film Channel Productions
John N Hart
Patrick Stettner, adapted from Maupin's novel