Though The Night Listeneris based on a nonfiction book by Armistead Maupin, it owes its place in the cultural moment more specifically to James Frey. It's a tale of horrendous and perhaps fabricated personal travails ' a movie that subjects an elaborate sob story to the skepticism of an Oprah-led society that's recently had its credulity blown into a million little pieces.
Even the tagline 'inspired by true eventsâ?� takes on something of an ironic slant, given that the occurrences depicted herein reek of misrepresentation and deceit. Radio personality Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), known for favoring his late-night audience with soft-spoken autobiographical narratives, is tipped to the story of a teenage boy (Rory Culkin) who has apparently weathered some tremendous hardships. The kid, Pete, was sired by parents who put him up for grabs in basement sex parties; the repeated group abuses they made him endure left his body racked with disease, and only his emancipation by a kindly protector (Toni Collette) has reserved for him some semblance of a fruitful life.
Noone gets to know the boy through heart-to-heart telephone chats, coming to appreciate the youthful honesty Pete emits through his hacking cough. But gradually, a disquieting, almost unspeakable consideration insinuates itself: Noone can't prove the boy exists. All he has are a (possibly impersonated) voice at the end of a telephone line, some good-faith photos and the assurances of Pete's guardian, who's starting to look less credible by the minute.
At the same time, Noone, who is gay, is witnessing the dissolution of his relationship with a much younger man (the great Bobby Cannavale of The Station Agent). It's this Jess who first suspects a scam, pointing out to Noone that the voices of Pete and his patron sound eerily similar. The friction that observation causes plays well into the men's disparate positions in life: Noone, already dreading the loss of Jess, needs something new to believe in; but his soon-to-be-ex is emerging from eight years lived in the shadow of AIDS-related death, and feels no such need to cling to the intangible. It's one of the most illustrative and useful gay-romance plots ever incorporated into a 'non-gayâ?� film ' and it's made all the more effective by the actors' utter rejection of the lazily effeminate mannerisms that sometimes seem to be de rigeur in these cinematic situations. (Hats off to director Patrick Stettner for not requiring them.)
Those are really the story's only two elements ' Noone's increasing suspicion of Collette's Donna and the fellas' painful breakup. Content-wise, the film could have worked just as well as a one-hour drama aired on a quality-committed cable network; even at a slim 82 minutes, it sometimes feels slow and padded. But there's a danger in believing that every movie has to be an overstuffed world-beater (see: Pirates of the Caribbean). Sometimes, holding up even a small mirror to contemporary anxieties is enough, which The Night Listener does by skillfully exploiting a mass distrust that's currently reverberating from book clubs to the blogosphere. We don't know who anyone is anymore, the film suggests, but the search for truth doesn't end when one exposes his deceiver and denounces him in front of a national TV audience. The process only ends when we admit that what we choose to believe says a lot about who we're trying to be.