Like most memoirists, public-radio personality Gabriel Noone sometimes embellishes certain details to make his stories more interesting. But how does this affect the people in his life who appear in those tales? And how does a natural-born embellisher like Gabriel react when someone tells HIM a story that may have some flourishes to it?
This is “The Night Listener,” a slick, mostly engaging drama starring Robin Williams (in a beard, so you know he’s serious) as Gabriel, whose weekly public radio program “Noone at Night” is heard throughout the country. As the film begins, however, his life is in a state of upheaval. His long-time boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale), who is HIV-positive but healthy, has broken up with him, and Gabriel is several weeks behind in his obligation to WNYH for new radio programs.
A book editor gives Gabriel a manuscript called “The Blacking Factory,” the harrowing memoirs of a young boy named Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), now 14, who suffered years of horrific abuse at the hands of his mother and any number of sleazy men she brought home. Gabriel finds the story compelling and worthy of attention. Pete, now safely adopted by a woman named Donna (Toni Collette), calls Gabriel at home, telling him how his radio show has brought him comfort, and the two begin a telephone-based friendship.
But over time, Gabriel starts to question certain elements of Pete’s story. If you have read the Armistead Maupin novel on which the film is based, you know what those elements are; if not, I won’t spoil it for you. The result is that Gabriel flies to Wisconsin to meet Pete and Donna face to face.
Donna is a skittish, reclusive woman who seems inordinately protective of Pete — understandable, perhaps, given what he’s been through and what he has yet to face, having recently been diagnosed with AIDS. She warms up to Gabriel somewhat, or at least takes an interest in him, but is hurt to realize he’s there to check up on the facts of Pete’s memoirs.
The director is a man named Patrick Stettner, whose first film “The Business of Strangers” also dealt with truth vs. fiction and people who are not what they seem. “The Night Listener,” adapted by Maupin, Stettner and Terry Anderson, tries delving into Gabriel’s psyche, but it doesn’t wind up showing us as much as it thinks it does. Lines like “we’re only as loved as we think we are” suggest Gabriel’s ongoing struggle to be accepted: He wants Jess to love him, but he wants his listeners to love him, too, and those two goals are sometimes at odds.
But what of it? By the end, Gabriel has reached an understanding of some kind; the problem is that somehow, we didn’t quite make the journey with him. Williams has adopted his customary persona as the wise, gentle clown, a character these days more infuriating than ingratiating.
Still, there is intrigue in the story, thanks largely to Toni Collette’s underplayed performance as Donna, a woman with a set of issues all her own. She brings sympathy to a character who might have been too weird otherwise. It takes a special kind of woman to adopt a child with as much baggage as Pete has. Could Gabriel have done that? Maybe he’s just jealous that someone has out-martyred him.
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )