Absolutely Fabulist

A subdued thriller considers the ominous power of storytelling.

The Night Listener
Williams and Cannavale play soon-to-be-ex-lovers.
Williams and Cannavale play soon-to-be-ex-lovers.
What's the difference between a good liar and a good storyteller? The answer, or the lack of an answer, is a mystery at the heart of The Night Listener, a muted psychological thriller adapted from the Armistead Maupin novel. A writer's elaborate what-if scenario extrapolated from an anecdote, it's presented as a story within a story.

"Inspired by true events," the movie announces -- a line typically best understood as "The film you are about to see is full of crap." The truth of The Night Listener is more complex. Though adapted by Maupin himself, with his former partner Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers), the movie is at least two degrees of embellishment removed from the incident that inspired it: the author's telephone relationship with a 14-year-old writer, one Anthony Godby Johnson, whose 1993 memoir of parental rape and torture led reporters from Newsweek and The New Yorker on a merry snipe hunt to corroborate his existence.

In his book, Maupin made his stand-in an NPR commentator named Gabriel Noone; when The Night Listener was serialized as an audio book on Salon.com, Maupin lent the character his voice, blurring the boundaries even more. In the movie, Gabriel is distinctly Robin Williams, laying out the story from the booth of the radio show "Noone at Night." But his words -- and the underlying ambivalence -- remain Maupin's: "I've spent years looting my life for fiction. Like a magpie, I save the shiny stuff and discard the rest."

The shiniest stuff is Johnson -- or rather Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), a 14-year-old kid whose lurid memoir reaches Gabriel just as he's getting dumped by his HIV-positive partner (Bobby Cannavale). The memoir stirs some protective, fatherly impulse in Gabriel, whose own dad (John Cullum) is a verbally abusive bigot, and the two become close by phone. The closer they get, though, the more Gabriel needs tangible, visible proof that the kid exists in the flesh. That means a trip to Wisconsin and the cautious company of Pete's adoptive mom, Donna (Toni Collette) -- a touchy, paranoid social worker who may have good reason to keep the boy hidden.

Shot by Lisa Rinzler in ominous dark tones, The Night Listener looks silliest and most contrived when it tries to generate chills from clichés: footsteps coming down a darkened hallway, a startling burst of noise from a neighbor's house. Much creepier are the scenes in which director Stettner places Gabriel and Donna together, letting her dangle her trump card -- her ability to solve the mystery of Pete -- like bait on a fishhook. It's not that Donna, who has an answer for everything, appears convincing in Collette's unnerving performance; you just wouldn't want to challenge her. Set against Williams' expert underplaying -- he's perfect as an author's impression of himself -- Collette practically embodies the moment passive aggression stops being passive.

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