Facial Err

Salt Lake City Weekly | July 28, 2006
He studied theater at Juilliard. He has an Oscar on his mantelpiece. He’s an iconic, much-loved movie star. Yet it must be said: As a dramatic actor, Robin Williams is boring.

Oh, he tries hard. He tries very, very hard. Despite being a comic talent of boundless energy, he has spent most of the last decade years on serious roles—Good Will Hunting, Jakob the Liar, What Dreams May Come, Insomnia. On rare occasions, as in something like One Hour Photo, he makes a stab at creating a unique character. In general, however, his method of preparation for straight drama appears fairly consistent: growing facial hair, adopting a constipated expression and generally squeezing every ounce of personality into a tight little ball in the pit of his stomach. He has created a stock persona that’s really the absence of his best-known, improvisational persona—something that might be referred to as Not-Mork.

And that’s a massive liability for The Night Listener, a taut and elegantly staged little psychological drama in desperate need of a vital center. Occupying the space where that center should be is Williams as Gabriel Noone, a New York-based writer and syndicated radio personality with a late-night show revealing autobiographical stories. Gabriel is facing the break-up of an eight-year relationship with his partner Jess (Bobby Canavale) when his editor hands him a manuscript to look at. It’s the memoir of a teenage survivor of childhood sexual abuse named Pete (Rory Culkin), a haunting tale that inspires Gabriel to begin a telephone correspondence and friendship with Pete and his adoptive mother/social worker Donna (Toni Collette). But soon doubts begin to emerge about Pete’s story, prompting Gabriel to do some amateur investigating in Pete’s Wisconsin town.

In a sense, the script—adapted from Armistead Maupin’s novel by Maupin, director Patrick Stettner and Terry Anderson—is probably too schematic for its own good. The levels on which Gabriel identifies with Pete—a troubled paternal relationship, emotional isolation, battles with AIDS—are given no small measure of underlining, and Gabriel’s summary analysis of his experience in his closing commentary ties things up with a neat little bow. If you’re looking for a film with subtle and complex suggestions as to what the protagonist will learn from the events, keep looking.

But there’s still a surprising effectiveness to much of The Night Listener. Toni Collette deserves some of the credit for what works here, thanks to a performance that slips effortlessly from grinning eagerness to a frighteningly short fuse. And a lot of the credit also goes to Stettner, who maintains a simmering sense of menace even when it’s clear that suspense isn’t the dominating flavor. His camera glides through scenes of dark silence, and he crafts one truly unnerving moment with a character turning to stare directly at the camera. While it’s true that he plays a little unfair by showing events that should be more clearly identified as projections of Gabriel’s mind, he gives the film a slick, engrossing momentum.

What he can’t give it—what only the actor playing the lead role could have given it—is a soul. Spelling out the lessons of the story in expository monologues may have been deemed necessary only after watching Williams’ inability to find his way inside Gabriel’s head. This is a sensible urbanite whose obsession leads him to sneak into a hospital ward and break into a house, yet there’s nothing behind Williams’ eyes that indicates why Gabriel feels compelled to know the truth about Pete. It’s Williams on serious-actor auto-pilot, allowing his beard to do all the can’t-you-tell-I’m-hurtin’-inside heavy lifting.

There’s an improbably telling scene late in The Night Listener where Gabriel blows his top at a police station after being roughed up by a local cop. The scene takes place behind glass, and not a word is audible as we watch Gabriel’s angry gesticulations. It’s Gabriel’s moment of big emotional release, yet it’s almost as though Stettner is pulling a trick similar to old-time Hollywood cinematographers who would only light and shoot a prickly star’s “best side”—he’s protecting Williams by hiding his shortcomings. RV may be nobody’s idea of high art, but maybe now that he’s got his first comedy hit of the 21st century working for him, he can pull his shaving kit out of the closet—and use the space to stow Not-Mork for a while.



Starring: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Canavale.

Directed by Patrick Stettner

Rated R.

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