In the new movie The Night Listener, Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a writer living in New York who has relayed his personal stories on a radio show called Noone at Night that's like Ira Glass' NPR-based This American Life. But after a long successful run, Gabriel finds himself in the midst of a crisis when his partner of ten years, Jess ( Bobby Cannavale ) , moves out. In an effort to shake him out of his depression, his book agent, Ashe ( Joe Morton ) , hands Gabriel an extraordinary manuscript from 14-year-old Pete Logand ( Rory Culkin ) , one of his biggest fans and asks him to take a look at it.
Unwillingly, Gabriel does and is so moved by Pete's writing gift in detailing his tragic history of severe sexual abuse and a maturity beyond his years that he slowly forms an attachment via a series of phone calls with the young man. Pete, who is suffering from AIDS, now lives in Wisconsin with his adoptive mother, Donna ( Toni Collette ) .
However, an intriguing mystery involving Donna and Pete compels Gabriel to head for Wisconsin—and this mystery that becomes the heart of the movie will ultimately succeed or fail with audiences based on their willingness to suspend their common sense. At many points throughout you find yourself 10 steps ahead of Gabriel and asking questions like, 'Didn't this guy ever hear of Mapquest?' But even if the movie doesn't work as a mystery/psychological thriller ( which is how it's being sold ) , knowing upfront that it's been inspired by true events gives this strange story plenty of resonance—especially in the era of the phony memoir. Other reasons to see the film are a worthwhile performance by Williams and a complex, note-perfect performance by Collette, who is also seen this week to startling effect in the not-to-be-missed caustic comedy Little Miss Sunshine.
The true events that the material is based on happened to writer and gay icon Armistead Maupin, which he then transformed into a best-selling novel. Thirteen years after the actual events occurred, Maupin and his ex-partner Terry Anderson have co-written the screenplay for The Night Listener, which is directed by Patrick Stettner. ( Maupin also served as executive producer. ) Stettner's debut feature was the little-seen but extremely well-acted dramatic thriller The Business of Strangers. He has fashioned a follow-up that can safely be called a thoughtful psychological thriller in the Hitchcock mode ( though it's closer in spirit to the dramatic pulp of Marnie than the deadly romanticism of Vertigo ) .
Like Stettner's previous feature, The Night Listener plays upon an audience's lightning-fast ability to shift loyalties from one character to the other. Thus, we are cued to empathize with Gabriel ( in no small measure because Williams plays the role ) over the end of his 10-year relationship with Jess, until an outburst from Jess makes us see a much less appealing side of Gabriel. Likewise, our feelings toward Donna are turned on its head several times throughout the movie ( even through a silly, melodramatic coda that feels tacked on ) .
The mystery aspect of the story would probably have made much more sense if the movie had been set nearer the time of the real incident upon which it is based—1993—rather than after the advent of the Internet. People have incredible access to information now and can arm themselves in seconds via a Google search. When Sandra Oh, playing Gabriel's supportive friend who trolls the Internet at one point, tries to glean information on the boy, it feels cursory at best.
The movie could have also used many more of the phone conversations between Gabriel and Pete for this relationship. It's these phone conversations that are the strongest aspects of what is essentially a radio drama. The movie falls into the same trap that befell Sorry, Wrong Number: How does one make a voice on the phone visually interesting?
The movie doesn't solve that conundrum, but thanks to the film's rich emotional content and Maupin's sure sense of storytelling, The Night Listener is worth tuning into at your local cineplex.
Gay co-directors and partners Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have carved out an interesting niche for themselves documenting the behind-the-scenes making of movies ( including the fascinating feature-length Lost In La Mancha ) . Now the pair has released its first fiction feature, Brothers of the Head, and it's safe to say that these two aren't going to lose any brownie points when it comes to originality.
The movie, based on a novel, is a faux documentary ( delivering a half-nelson to the 'mockumentary' genre ) about the attempt to turn conjoined twin brothers Tom and Barry Howe ( Luke and Tom Treadaway, real-life twins ) into proto-punk rock stars a la David Bowie and Johnny Rotten.
Set in England in the early '70s at the cusp of the punk era that shook the country to its musical roots, the movie is Dickensian in the extreme. The brothers are sold by their father into the evil clutches of a music impresario ( who sees a cash cow in the lads ) who turns them over to a brutal manager. The usual talking heads reminiscing are interspersed with riveting 'archival' footage of the twins. They're obsessively filmed—in true Maysles Brothers style—by the sunny but creepy Eddie ( Tom Bower ) , beaten by their 'handler' and adored by the beautiful but selfish journalist, Laura ( Tania Emery ) . ( She adores one of them, anyway. )
Quickly, the lads descend into the excesses of rock culture that Fulton and Pepe vividly capture. This is the rock 'n roll milieu of the period that films like Almost Famous only dreamed about. The film also includes intense live musical numbers and poetic rock songs ( perfectly realized by songwriter Clive Langer ) ; elusive dream imagery; and strong hints of an unrequited gay love of one brother for the other that adds to the uneasy, freak show undercurrent of the movie. If you've longed to see a movie that crosses Gimme Shelter with The Elephant Man, you've got your wish.
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Feedback can be left at the latter Web site that also features an exclusive interview with Brothers of the Head directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe this week.