Real isn’t how you were made. It is a thing that happens to you.
— Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
The camera swings around a single, subdued-seeming figure, seated in a dim recording studio. Famous New York City-based writer Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is hosting his late-night radio talk show. He’s telling stories. As The Night Listener begins, Gabriel is promising to “lay out the events exactly as I remember them.”
This is a smart opening, setting you up as the titular “listener,” though the designation will come to include Gabriel’s other listeners as well as himself. It’s also smart because it immerses you in Gabriel’s understanding of events: what he remembers hardly need be what happened, and as a fiction writer, he knows the effectiveness of calling a story “inspired by true events.” A mystery story based on an Armistad Maupin novel that is indeed so inspired, the film is twice derived, based on a fictionalization of Maupin’s own experiences, and adapted by Maupin, Terry Anderson, and director Patrick Stettner. This makes for an intriguing focus on the artist’s practice, as Gabriel — who is made up — makes up and also uses the lives of others. The film asks when this process turns selfish and, perhaps more importantly, self-deluding.
Gabriel’s mournful tone is not only his habit; at the moment he’s grieving the loss of his long-term relationship: his boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale) has moved out, feeling that his dependence on Gabriel, in part a function of his HIV+ status, needs rethinking (especially as his illness is now at a stage where he’s not going to die soon, but appears to have a future stretching before him). Gabriel is angry and forlorn, Jess is solicitous, inviting his ex to a party at his new place, checking in on him and still tending to household chores back at Gabriel’s (“He’s fixing my fuse box,” Gabriel says by way of explaining Jess’ presence one afternoon, just one indication of the writer’s persistent play with language).
In his loneliness, as Gabriel recalls it, he develops a friendship with a first-time writer, 14-year-old Pete. Asked to read the boy’s manuscript by a publisher friend, Ashe (Joe Morton), Gabriel is intrigued by the vivid prose and subject matter, having to do with Pete’s sexual abuse in a basement. Called “The Blacking Factory,” after Dickens’, the story is rendered, while Gabriel reads, in smudgy images that convey panic and horror. Again, the film immerses you in Gabriel’s mind, what he sees and understands, his interpretation of what he reads. Following his seduction by the story, Gabriel comes to speak with the boy over the phone, and finds they share versions of isolation, alienation, and humor, in short, a sense that their lots in life are “shitty.” That Pete appears on screen — in Gabriel’s mind’s eye — as Rory Culkin, you believe he exists.
And then…. Gabriel learns that Pete is also terminally ill and he wants to help. But the boy’s adoptive guardian, a social worker named Donna (Toni Collette), seems inclined to keep them apart. Jess (visiting to fix that fuse box) observes that, over the phone, Pete and Donna actually sound like the same person. Thus begins Gabriel’s search for a “truth,” most specifically, whether or not Pete does exist. Gabriel suspects he’s been had, but doesn’t want to believe that Donna (or whoever she is) is capable of such cruel deception. Worse, he starts to think that he’s not only the victim of such deception, but the perpetrator, that like Donna, he sues people’s stories to suit his own needs and desires, to gain attention, to feel special. At this point he launches into an elaborate effort to track down Pete, which leads him to some tense encounters with Donna, first on the phone (as Pete is in the hospital and unreachable), and then, after a lengthy journey by plane and rental car to Wisconsin, a physical meeting.
This is where the film tips over into silliness, as it pathologizes Donna explicitly. (It’s possible that her bad behavior is Gabriel’s fiction, as he is “remembering” the facts according to his own needs, but this is a step the film leaves to you.) Gabriel asks to see Pete (she says he’s in the hospital again, and near death to boot). “It’s a hard place to be,” Gabriel says, not really about Pete’s condition, “not knowing for sure.” Donna snaps back, accusing him of lacking faith: “You’re the kind of guy who needs proof.”
Even as Donna becomes an easy target (despite Collette’s performance, which is less clunky than the character), Gabriel’s interests are more complex than she thinks. He sees in Donna’s apparent ruse a parallel to his own creative process, his writing and his reading, even as he blames her, seeing her version of this process as malevolent. Gabriel wants to know. He wants to know for sure. The problem is, he can’t.
Tapping into recent public outrages over writers who lie (for instance, J.T. LeRoy and James Frey), The Night Listener‘s indictments are drearily unsubtle. In fact, the sharpest moments have little to do with Gabriel’s ponderous inquiries. Wonderful Sandra Oh, as Anna, Gabriel’s accountant, provides welcome wit and level-headedness amid the hubbub (though she’s not on-screen nearly enough). Anna sees the mystery for the tawdry business it might be: “What if she has him embalmed like that guy from Psycho?” Anna wonders aloud, or… wait for it… “What if she’s the one who doesn’t exist?” That tears it. The question is not what’s real. The question is, who cares, and how does anyone come to care?
The Night Listener — Theatrical Trailer