What's the difference between a good liar and a good storyteller? The answer, or the lack of an answer, is a mystery at the heart of The Night Listener, a muted psychological thriller adapted from the Armistead Maupin novel. A writer's elaborate what-if scenario extrapolated from an anecdote, it's presented as a story within a story, sometimes clunkily. And yet, in some ways, the story's narrative bumps and shortcomings create a clearer picture of its teller than the tale itself does.
“Inspired by true events,” the movie announces — a line typically best understood as, “The film you are about to see is full of crap.” The truth of The Night Listener is more complex. Though adapted by Maupin himself, with his former partner Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers), the movie is at least two degrees of embellishment removed from the incident that inspired it: the author's telephone correspondence with a 14-year-old writer, one Anthony Godby Johnson, whose 1993 memoir of parental rape and torture led reporters from Newsweek and The New Yorker on a merry snipe hunt to corroborate his existence.
In his book, which drew upon details of his life as well as his fiction, Maupin made his stand-in an NPR commentator named Gabriel Noone; when The Night Listener was serialized as an audio book on Salon.com, Maupin lent the character his voice, blurring their boundaries even more. In the movie, Gabriel is distinctly Robin Williams, laying out the story from the booth of the radio show “Noone at Night.” But his words — and the underlying ambivalence — remain Maupin's: “I've spent years looting my life for fiction. Like a magpie, I save the shiny stuff and discard the rest.”
The shiniest stuff is Johnson — or rather, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), a 14-year-old kid whose lurid memoir reaches Gabriel just as he's getting dumped by his HIV-positive partner (Bobby Cannavale). The memoir stirs some protective, fatherly impulse in Gabriel, whose own dad (John Cullum) is a verbally abusive bigot, and the two become close by phone. The closer they get, though, the more Gabriel needs tangible, visible proof the kid exists in the flesh. That means a trip to Wisconsin, and the cautious company of Pete's adoptive mom, Donna (Toni Collette) — a touchy, paranoid social worker who may have good reason to keep the boy hidden.
You can argue that Donna remains an enigma, more a fascinating plot device than a rounded character, even with Collette making her desperation palpably clammy. You can also argue that characters like Gabriel's dad drop awkwardly in and out of the script, and that details rhyme too neatly, such as Gabriel losing an infected lover and gaining, in essence, an infected son. But are these the faults of Maupin's storytelling, or Gabriel's? Intended or not, each of these reveals something about the authorial sensibility shaping the story — a desire not to look too closely at a fellow fabulist who borrows, without asking, the lives of others; an instinct to beat a safe retreat back to NPR-friendly types and conflicts; and an urge to impose a convenient structure on life's messiness. Each, in its modest way, is a lie. The clunkiness can't be entirely intentional, but the glimpse it affords of an author tiptoeing around his ethical queasiness doesn't seem entirely accidental, either.
Shot by Lisa Rinzler in ominous dark tones, The Night Listener looks silliest and most contrived when it tries to generate chills from threadbare tropes: footsteps coming down a darkened hallway, a startling burst of noise from a neighbor's house. Much creepier are the scenes in which director Stettner places Gabriel and Donna together, letting her dangle her trump card — her ability to solve the mystery of Pete — like bait on a fishhook. It's not that Donna, who has an answer for everything, appears convincing in Collette's unnerving performance; you just wouldn't want to challenge her. Set against Williams' expert underplaying — he's perfect as an author's impression of himself — Collette practically embodies the moment passive aggression stops being passive.
The book The Night Listener was written in 2000 — back when James Frey was only in a hundred little pieces, back before J.T. LeRoy had his sex change from a 20-year-old boy to a 40-ish housewife. Though the book is six years old, the movie version seems strangely timely. What read like a cautionary tale about treating the world as raw material now plays on-screen like a macabre joke about our national susceptibility to vicarious victimization. Gabriel, as it turns out, is not the only one desperate to believe in Pete: An entire community of waitresses, neighbors, and sheriffs believes, too, and believes they must protect him from marauding sleazeballs — people like Gabriel. The difference between a good liar and a good storyteller, perhaps, is the degree to which other people willingly comply with the fiction. As an author Pete might admire once wrote — borrowing, of course, from somewhere else — the heart is deceitful above all things.