Release Date: August 4, 2006
Robin Williams is one of my all time favorite actors. In fact, I love him in a very non-sexual critic-to-actor sort of way. But let’s face it, the box office has not been kind territory of Robin as of late. Earlier this year he starred in RV, which was meant to do for him what Christmas Vacation did for Chevy Chase, revive his comedic career. That did not quite happen, as RV failed to catch on and barely turned a profit.
I also have a similar type of love for Toni Collette, who is one of the most effortlessly spectacular actresses in Hollywood today. Her characters are always so dynamic and she has fantastic range as an actress. Her year has gone a little different with huge Oscar buzz around indie sensation Little Miss Sunshine and a solid hit late last year with In Her Shoes.
So with my afore mentioned non-sexual affection toward these two stars, why wouldn’t I be attracted to a film like The Night Listener. In this film, Williams stars as a late night radio celebrity in New York who comes across a book by a young boy who had a troubled childhood. The boy (played by Rory Culkin) has fallen into the care of Donna (played by Collette), who has kept him hidden from the world so that which haunts his past does not catch up with him. After developing a long-distance relationship with both the boy and Donna, Gabrielle (Williams) begins to get suspicious about the existence of the young boy and goes in search for the truth.
The rest is intended to be a suspenseful, dark drama that plays out almost as a Hitchcock film would. I say “intended” because I can see what director Patrick Stettner was going for, but I can also see that it didn’t quite happen the way it was intended. The film sets up very well; the first 5 minutes set us up for a very dark and disturbing tale of a boy who was sexually abused by his parents and is writing a book to share his pain with the world. The next 77 minutes (which felt like 3 hours) of the film, however, fall flat of delivering what the first 5 promised. The suspense and drama seem to flake away in an almost clearly defined melodramatic haze, leaving the audience to wonder whether this is a straightforward drama or a suspense flick. The answer is that it is neither.
The performances, on the other hand, were ok. Much of what you would expect from a great cast like this, but disappointing if you really think about it. Robin Williams seemed to give the character of Gabrielle a certain comatose quality which made him more of a na¯ve victim than an unfortunate hero. And that is not to say that his performance was bad, it just didn’t do what I believe it was intended to do. Toni Collette, on the other hand, is rather creepy and intriguing as Donna; it is easy to see from the beginning that there is more to her character than meets the eye at first, and over the course of the film Collette slowly unravels the layers of Donna’s personality. This may have created the only notable suspense within the entire film, as I was waiting to see what Collette would do next.
But even with a film that does not deliver what is promised and performances from great actors that are mostly just ok, there is one more disappointing thing about this film. At some point during the middle of the movie, the end is pretty much revealed, leading me to ask the question “Why make a second half if you are going to give us the answer 40 minutes in?” It was the most severely disappointing thing that I have seen from a drama in a long time. It was as if the director wants us to know what is going to happen 10 minutes from now, then expects us to be surprised when it happens. This type of thing usually just makes me lose interest in a film, but in this case it crossed over into the realm of annoying. I could not stand knowing what was going to happen next, and for that reason I could not stand the film either.
It is very difficult for me now to give this film a low rating due to my affection for its cast and my understanding of what the film should deliver, but I just cannot recommend it. It falls very clearly into the category of both melodramatic and anti-climactic, leaving no room for being either suspenseful or interesting. In fact, I was so disappointed that if it weren’t for Toni Collette, I believe the film would have been completely unbearable. But then I guess, if you need to feel like you can predict what is going to happen in movies, this one should be like shooting fish in a barrel for you. For the rest of us, The Night Listener is more forgettable than anything else.