Is The Night Listener a wintry drama with a few schlocky jolts, or an underdone psychological thriller straining for some dramatic heft on the side? Hard to tell, but either way, the movie doesn’t cohere.
Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a burned-out nighttime radio host who gets some of his mojo back when he befriends, over the phone, both Pete (Rory Culkin), a dying 14-year-old who’s written a gripping memoir about the sexual abuse in his past, and Pete’s foster mom Donna (Toni Collette). Who are these two? Without giving anything away, let’s just say Listener is based on Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin’s fictionalized 2000 account of how he, in real life, fell in with a kid memoir-writer whose CV never quite checked out.
But nothing in the restrained mystery of the nicely acted first half, set to Peter Nashel’s Philip Glass-y score and featuring Sandra Oh and Bobby Cannavale in quick supporting parts, sets up the veering tonal shift once Noone arrives in cold Wisconsin to suss out what’s going on with his new friends. The Night Listener is like Shattered Glass with real shattered glass. Unexpectedly, this turns out to be one of those horror-thrillers where characters lying in the street see the headlights of the semitruck coming from far off and still have to jump out of the way at the last minute because, in these kinds of movies, semis are like trains and apparently they can’t stop.