Flawed though it is in many respects, Patrick Stettner’s film version of Armistead Maupin’s novel The Night Listener is far and away the most interesting film to open this week. That’s not necessarily a major accomplishment up against Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver, a group of spelunkers getting eaten by blind albino cave dwellers and the seemingly obligatory animated movie of the week. But it’s an accomplishment all the same. Perhaps it will one day seem even more of an accomplishment, since it’s a movie where I can recite a litany of flaws, simplifications, implausibilities, inconsistencies and even (at the very least) borderline cheating — and still feel that I saw something worthwhile.
Maupin’s book is grounded in a personal experience — hence that blood-curdling title, “Inspired by True Events.” A supposedly terminally ill adolescent, Anthony Godby Johnson, purportedly wrote a book, A Rock and a Hard Place, that detailed his parents’ sexual abuse of him. Maupin became involved in a lengthy telephone-only relationship with the boy, finally becoming convinced that the young author was actually the fictional creation of the woman who claimed to be the boy’s guardian. Maupin decided he had spent time and emotion with a person who didn’t really exist.
Whether or not Maupin is right remains in doubt, but he turned the occurrence into The Night Listener, presenting himself as an NPR radio personality named Gabriel Noone (played in the film — probably for scale — by long-time Maupin friend Robin Williams). Noone is a man at a bad place in his life. The younger boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent), who he had been taking care of for years, has decided — now that his AIDS is in remission — that he wants to experience something of life on his own, leaving Noone feeling unmoored. (It’s hardly coincidental that the name Noone divides into “no one.”) Since so much of his radio storytelling involves turning his life into fiction, the resultant doldrums also bring about a kind of writer’s block.
This changes when his editor (Joe Morton, The Brother from Another Planet) brings him a manuscript called The Blacking Factory by a 14-year-old named Pete Logand (Rory Culkin, The Chumscrubber) — a work that’s almost identical to the real one that captured Maupin’s attention. Fascinated and appalled, Noone begins a phone relationship with the boy and the boy’s guardian, Donna Logand (Toni Collette). Trust in the reality of all this gets called into question when Jess hears phone messages left by both Pete and Tony and says that they sound like the same person to him. At first Noone refuses to believe the possibility, but doubt sets in, and just as his accountant, Anna (Sandra Oh, Sideways), suggests voiceprints as a solution, Noone finds the Logands’ phone has been disconnected. In order to learn the truth, Noone goes to rural Wisconsin to find out for himself. His search — and what he finds and doesn’t find — makes up the latter half of the film.
The storyline is often awkward once the movie gets to Wisconsin, though at least one of the more skewed (and ultimately senseless) aspects of this — the fact that Donna is blind — is apparently a deliberate clue to the viewer about the nature of what’s going on. Considering the source material, it really gives away very little to reveal that Noone never lays eyes on Pete Logand, leaving him with the sense that no such person exists. But that, I think, is the inherent point in the story, which Maupin possibly fictionalized from real life out of a personal need for closure. In doing so, however, Maupin went further into the sense of aloneness than the story itself does as a not-very-satisfying mystery.
While Stettner’s film is very adept at creating a chilling, slightly creepy atmosphere, it’s this sense of the alone that makes The Night Listener so disturbing and compelling. It’s at the core of someone fixating on a radio personality they come to think they know. It’s at the core of Noone entering into this long-distance relationship when his real-life relationship with Jess falls apart. The key scene, in fact, isn’t one of the film’s bigger revelatory moments, but an almost tangential one where Noone goes to a party being given by Jess. At first, he’s thrilled that he’s still enough a part of Jess’ life to have been invited, but then he gets there. He’s out of place. This isn’t his world. He wants to leave — and though it’s not openly stated, the real reason for wanting to leave is the sense that the person he loved never really existed, that the person was his own construct. In the end, it’s the desolation of the sadness stemming from the realization he’s alone that’s behind the search for a reality that perhaps doesn’t exist. This is the power of The Night Listener — this is the feeling that makes it rise far beyond its flaws. Rated R for language and some disquieting sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke