Review: The Night Listener
It’s difficult to watch The Night Listener and not think of JT Leroy despite the fact that the Armistead Maupin’s autobiographical story, on which the film is based, occurred years before the San Francisco writer appeared. In it, a gay radio short story writer named Gabriel Noone (a surprisingly subdued Robin Williams) is going through a painful break up with his lover of 10 years, played by Bobby Cannavale.
A colleague gives the depressed Gabriel a copy of a manuscript he’s considering publishing by a young boy subjected to horrific abuse at the hands of his parents. Apparently this boy, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) is a huge fan of Gabriel’s work, and the two begin a phone friendship. But elements begin to not add up about Pete, and when the ex points out how similar his voice is to his adoptive caretaker Donna, Gabriel starts to doubt the boy’s existence. Gabriel then decides to take his amateur sleuthing on the road, snooping around Donna and Pete's tiny Midwestern town with near disastrous results.
As a professional journalist, I actually came in contact a number of times with JT Leroy, the San Francisco novelist whose stories of childhood abuse, sexual confusion and a truck-stop hooker mother led to notoriety and fame. Like Pete, Leroy also primarily communicated with his editors, supporters and celebrity friends over the phone, only appearing in person dressed in sunglasses and obviously bad wigs. Until of course, he was exposed as a concoction of a San Francisco couple who posed as his caretakers, earlier this year.
I spoke to Leroy quite a few times on the phone for stories he was writing at the magazine where I worked and like Gabriel Noone with Pete, I assumed, as did my fellow editors, that he was who he said. While I never had an emotional connection with JT or became friends with him, we did chat conspiratorially. He was funny and masculinely raunchy, despite his oddly high-pitched voice. Maybe it seems obvious in retrospect that his work was too good to be true based on his age and education level, but I know first hand how easy it is to be drawn in someone who’s charismatic and understandable to want to believe in apparent writing talent.
Williams does a nice job in the film of depicting Gabriel’s loneliness and the subsequent fascination with this young boy’s difficult childhood and his talents as a writer. I prefer this subdued and thoughtful Williams to the manic one, hopefully he’ll continue to do these types of roles as he ages. Also, it’s always refreshing to see a moderately mainstream movie deal with homosexual relationships in such a matter of a fact way. The gayness of the characters is very present, but it’s not the only thing happening and thus it fades as a mere detail to the thriller plot. Without giving too much away on that front, Toni Collette as the caretaker Donna is excellent. Between this and Little Miss Sunshine, both movies she made a while ago but which happen to be hitting theaters around the same time, it’s clear Collette is one of our most versatile actresses.