If for no other reason, the new psycho-thriller The Night Listener is worth seeing because it contains something long thought extinct: a decent performance by Robin Williams. The man who tried to shed his warm and fuzzy Patch Adams persona in would-be "edgy" crap like Death to Smoochy, One-Hour Photo and The Final Cut had seemingly given up this spring, when he retreated to the lame, family-friendly high jinks of RV. His new moody, chilly, low-key film may not blow out the box office, but it goes a long way in repairing his cred as a serious actor.
Of course, you'll need to get over the notion of Williams playing a successful gay radio personality turned amateur detective. You can imagine the pitch: "It's The Birdcage meets Good Morning Vietnam!" But Williams brings a sense of humor, curiosity and middle-aged angst to the character of Gabriel Noone that few others could pull off; for once, he builds audience sympathy without being cloying, and he conveys sadness without being terminally mopey.
The movie opens with Gabriel in a dark room in front a microphone, speaking in dulcet tones to an adoring audience of fans. A successful author, he's made a living by turning his sometimes-tempestuous life his hunky young boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) is currently in the process of dumping him into semiautobiographical fiction. Feeling alone and frustrated with his writing, Gabriel hears of a 14-year-old fan in Wisconsin who wants to be pen pals. The boy, Pete (Rory Culkin), wants to publish a lurid novel based on his own troubled childhood, when he was whored out to pedophiles by his drug-addicted birth mother. Now afflicted with AIDS and being cared for by his blind foster mother Donna (Toni Collette), Pete reaches out to Gabriel for companionship. But when Gabriel's friends in New York start questioning how true the boy's tales are, he decides to hop a plane to the Midwest to meet face to face.
That's when things start to get seriously creepy. Writer-director Patrick Stettner sheds the sometimes corny, morose tones of the film's early scenes in favor of good old-fashioned suspense. He gets the details of the genre right: the hissing radiators, the empty small-town Midwestern diners, the sweaty windows of a motel in winter. Williams' mild, benevolent characterization is an eerie contrast to Collette's protective, volatile Donna. The endlessly inventive actress can always be counted on to improve any movie she's in, but in this film she's absolutely essential: Pete's secrets are too thin to make for great cinema, but Collette with her abrupt, unusually direct manner of speaking and unpredictable physicality keeps you guessing until the end.
Ultimately, The Night Listener is a decent psychological drama dressed up as an engrossing mystery. At just 82 minutes, it's too brief and inconsequential, and Stettner and co-writer Armistead Maupin (adapting his own novel) miss out on the opportunity to draw parallels with recent sham-autobiographical authors like James Frey or JT LeRoy. But whenever Williams and Collette are allowed to lock horns basically, most of the second half of the film the actors create a frisson that sticks with you long after the movie's ended. Who knew Williams still had it in him to be intentionally creepy, desperate and sad?
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.