In the early 1990s, the publishing world was captivated by a manuscript
purportedly written by a teenage boy, in which he recounted years of being
sexually abused by his parents and various individuals they invited over.
The young boy named Anthony Godby Johnson reportedly had become infected
with the virus that causes AIDS and also suffered numerous other health
problems, including the amputation of one leg. The esteemed author Paul
Monette, who had written so movingly about caring for his lover who died from
AIDS and who was struggling with his own battle with the disease, wrote an
introduction to the book. Curiously, though, he had never met the author.
Indeed, no one had; not the agent who set up the deal, not the publisher,
no one. Whenever anyone tried to contact Anthony, his adoptive mother
would inform them that the boy had been hospitalized or was too ill.
Through Monette, writer Armistead Maupin began a telephone relationship
with the youth. Eventually, Maupin grew suspicious, goaded on partly by
his lover Terry Anderson's questions. Soon it became clear that all parties
had been victims in an elaborate publishing hoax. (And yes, even Oprah
Winfrey had devoted a program to Anthony and his plight.)
Maupin used the material for the basis of a novel called THE NIGHT
LISTENER, and now that book has been adapted for the screen by the author,
his former lover Terry Anderson, and director Patrick Stettner. The movie is
arriving in theaters at an intriguing junction in popular culture. Back in January
2006, there was the Oprah Winfrey-James Frey brouhaha over Frey's memoir
A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (as if Frey was the first and only author ever to
embellish his life story. Be prepared, Augusten Burroughs, you will be next
when RUNNING WITH SCISSORS hits the multiplexes in the fall!) Following
close on the heels of the Frey debacle was the revelation that JT LeRoy, who
wrote books that held echoes of the Godby Johnson text, was a fraud.
And if we aren't already overstuffed on the matter, THE HOAX, detailing
Clifford Irving's fabrication of Howard Hughes' autobiography is also arriving
in theaters early next year. So the Zeitgeist would appear to be primed for the
screen version of Maupin's novel.
Robin Williams is cast as Gabriel Noone (the Maupin stand-in), a
radio personality who takes stories from his own life and spices them
up for his listener's pleasure. When the movie opens, though, he is
experiencing something of a creative block, partly because his longtime
lover Jess (Bobby Canavale) is in the process of moving out. Over the
years on his program "Noone at Night," Gabriel has used Jess and his
struggle with HIV infection as source material. Jess, however, has responded
to a new drug treatment and is healthy. Jess may have some residual
resentment over his being used as source material, but more importantly,
he wants to start afresh.
Gabriel is at a low point in his life, and by chance, a publisher
friend Ash (Joe Morton) gives him a manuscript by a teenager who had
been abused and is now dying from complications from AIDS. Ash has
also taken the liberty of giving the boy Gabriel's phone number.
Moved by the incredulous story he reads, Noone accepts the youngster's
call and begins a phone relationship. Yet, whenever he asks too personal
a question, the boy begins to cough or becomes otherwise ill and his
adoptive mother takes over the conversation.
Eventually, Jess points out that the boy and his mother sound
very similar and may in fact be the same person. Determined to prove
him wrong -- or at least to find out the truth -- Gabriel heads to the
Midwest to track down Pete (Rory Culkin) and Donna Logand (Toni
Collette). At this point, the film begins to unravel a bit. Not having
read the novel, I cannot say for sure if Maupin or director Stettner is
to blame for allowing Gabriel, an otherwise intelligent character, to do
and say essentially stupid things.
Williams does what he can with the role, but he doesn't appear
to be challenged by the material. Canavale offers fine support as Jess,
and Sandra Oh has a few good scenes as Noone's accountant. Culkin
isn't really given much to do; he's been much more effective in any
number of other parts. The best performance in the film comes from
Toni Collette as the adoptive mother who may be harboring secrets.
Collette manages to make the character intriguing and sympathetic
even as the audience is questioning her and her motives. It's another
nuanced, skilled portrayal from this immensely gifted actress.
The technical credits are all fine, but Lisa Rinzler's expert
cinematography requires special mention.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some disquieting
Running time: 82 mins.
Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
|The Night Listener
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.