For a mish-mash of recondite themes, a cast of impressive actors and a few chills, you won't find a better movie this summer than The Night Listener. That's too bad. Based on a book by Armistead Maupin, and directed by the interesting Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers), it's finally less than meets the eye, and its weightiness is something of an illusion, like dropping a feather on the moon.
The story is complex, and then again, it isn't. Gabriel Noone ... first name an angel, last name a cipher ... is a popular radio storyteller who "loots his life for fiction." For eight years now, Gabriel (Robin Williams) has told the story of himself and his younger lover, Jess (Bobby Cannavale). They met right after Jess ... HIV-positive, and expecting to die ... graduated from college. But he didn't die, and he won't any time soon. So now he wants some space, and he's moved out of their home.
Just then, a publisher friend (Joe Morton) gives Gabriel a book written by Pete (Rory Culkin), a 14-year-old boy dying of AIDS. His sicko parents forced him to take part in their sex orgies since early childhood, and now he lives in secrecy with foster mother Donna (Toni Collette). The two begin a phone friendship with Gabriel, and when Jess suggests that it might be a scam, Gabriel goes to Wisconsin to prove him wrong.
The actors in The Night Listener ... there's also Sandra Oh as Gabriel's assistant ... play their roles with elegant simplicity, and Stettner, who co-wrote the script, films it tightly, like a thriller, but with an eye toward plausibility, like a drama. The result is high-brow entertainment loaded with meaty themes. But The Night Listener ends up explaining itself a bit too much, so you're left with things to argue about but nothing to truly think about.
Apart from its riff on the trendy nexus of fiction and reality, it boils down to one idea: There's no such thing as an unmixed motive. Did Gabriel love Jess because he provided storytelling fodder? Did Jess love Gabriel because he needed a caretaker? Did Jess suggest fraud to protect Gabriel or to burst his bubble? Is Donna a good soul, or a mentally ill attention-freak? Does Gabriel's gruff father (John Cullum) respect his son's homosexuality, or is his tart badinage really repressed hostility? (Gabriel gives as good as he gets, by the way.)
For all of this film's elaborate plotting and veiled psychologies, I'd rather have seen one about Gabriel and Jess over the course of eight years. On the plane to Wisconsin, Gabriel pretends to be a divorced father as he chats with the cheerful Cheeser sitting next to him. When a male flight attendant gently thanks Gabriel for all he's done "for us," the woman asks, "You've done something for flight attendants?" Sure, it's a cheap shot. But it's also a little true, too.