Robin Williams stars as Gabriel Noone, a writer and radio personality who is contacted by a fan: AIDS-stricken, sexually abused 14-year-old Pete (Rory Culkin), whose memoir is about to be published. Moved and impressed by the manuscript -- and perhaps unconsciously seeking personal material for his own work -- Gabriel strikes up a long-distance friendship with the boy and his foster mother (Toni Collette) in Wisconsin, a relationship that takes a mysterious turn when he attempts to meet the boy.
Williams is subdued here, displaying none of the manic energy of his comedy roles, the icky sentimentality of his "serious" roles, or the actorly indulgences of his attempts to play against type. He underplays Gabriel's homosexuality surprisingly and effectively, and though there's a tension in Williams keeping his nervous energy under wraps, it suits the character.
The mystery that emerges about Peter and his guardian works in a TV-drama kind of way, and The Night Listener would be meatier if it followed through on the implications of Gabriel's own motivations. This writer-as-exploiter theme instead gives way to more standard suspense tropes.
The Night Listener is more watchable than you'd expect from an idea as cringe-inducing as "Sundance drama starring Robin Williams." But it doesn't really amount to much.
Opens Friday, August 4th, at Ridgeway Four