Cinema Signal:

Night Listener, The tie-in:

A Novel by Armistead Maupin

. "The Night Listener"

There's absolutely nothing wrong with this movie that a good story wouldn't fix. The production values are exceeded for excellence only by the flawless acting. On the other hand, riding on a one-note fantasy idea, it's hard to say which is worse, the mystery of identity grinding your attention level into the dust or the colorless pay off.

Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is a man with two problems: a radio talk show that needs some stimulus and the loss of his years-long relationship with his live-in boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale, "The Station Agent"). The first of these may be provided by the keen interest of a young boy, Pete D. Logand (Rory Culkin) who has written a book about his fight for recovery from a dread illness that Gabriel's friend Ashe is about to publish. Through Ashe, Pete contacts Gabriel and cements an instant concern and bond with the big-hearted talk show host.

In Gabriel's continued attempts to offer deeply felt encouragement to the bedridden Pete he becomes acquainted with Donna (Toni Collette), his mother. She becomes engaged with Gabriels empathy for her son's welfare and sends Gabriel a picture of Pete. Jess, meanwhile, is trying to assure Gabriel that, while he's gone from his apartment, he's not altogether gone from his life. In fact, Jess becomes concerned about his ex-lover's emotional commitment to a boy he's never seen, questioning the wisdom of it.

When Jess visits Gabriel one day, Gabriel tries to assuage Jess's concerns by playing the phone message tapes of Pete and Donna. Rejecting both the photo and the tapes as proof of a caller's true identity and, even, existence, Jess points out a similarity in the inflective pattern of the two voices. Maybe Donna's faking a sick son. Or, maybe, this is just a curious case of over-protectiveness. Since we, the audience, see both the boy and the mother whenever they speak with our hero, it comes as an odd observation.

The questioning of it gets to Ashe, who decides not to publish what he knows as Pete's manuscript while Gabriel, desperate to get reality sorted out, flies to the Logands, whose address is on the envelope the photo arrived in. When he at last tracks the address down, he discovers it's a blind for a postal service box as an entrepreneurial convenience store service.

What happens then is mystery-thriller game-playing in which we finally meet the resourceful, remorseless Donna and her seeing-eye dog. Yes, she turns up alive and blind. Or is she just faking it? Is she really some creep who's been stringing a gullible do-gooder along from the git-go? If not, who and where is Pete?

The actors all take this very seriously and their contributions are golden. Watch Collette in a complete turnaround from her comedic mother in "Little Miss Sunshine." Cannavale is in totally reliable form, demonstrating once again why he should be cast in more features. And a few brief appearances by Sandra Oh as Gabriel's sounding board provides the film its most dependable returns to the comfort of reason and rationality.

As for Williams, what he does here adds to my wish (after such work as "One Hour Photo") that he'd stick to more serious work than the schtick side of his ledger. (Do we really need more "RV?")

The score by Peter Nashel incorporates a very interesting track by Bob Dylan that helps set thing up at the beginning. There's decidedly something missing here under the guidance of director Patrick Stettner, which doesn't appear to be making enough of Armistead Maupin's book and screenplay, which he co-wrote with Terry Anderson. Or, maybe there's just not that much more in the book. Mysteries remain, long after the final credits.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
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Robin Williams and Toni Collette
She's really got a handle on this guy's soft spot.
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