When he switches off the mouth, Robin Williams can be an incredibly effective actor. This is one of those turns, yet it’s ironically about a man who is a professional mouth, a DJ with a late-night show who uses his graveyard phone-in to tell and listen to stories.
It’s another of Williams’s characteristics as an actor that he’s happy, let’s say willing, to play characters who either aren’t likeable or are downright nasty, One Hour Photo being the ultimate proof of that. Again ironically, he’s neither here, though he is playing a character despised in much of society – a gay man.
There’s a dark almost Hitchcockian feel to the path that leads off from this starting position, as this avuncular “listener” with relationship problems of his own one evening takes a call which knocks a sense of perspective into his own rather meagre life. He learns about a 14-year-old boy who is dying of Aids, thanks to the years of sexual abuse he has been subjected to by his parents and their inner circle – for his eighth birthday this kid got syphilis. The story is a true one – not that of the boy, we’ve no idea about the bones of that case – but about this concerned man forced by a troubled conscience into trying to find then help this poor kid. All he’s got to go on is the prompting of the boy’s carer (Toni Collette), who is blind and so isn’t as much help as she might be. Or possibly, we realise as things wander along, it’s not even beginning to be as simple as all that.
The original story is by Armistead Maupin, of Tales of the City fame, who gives himself just enough space to explore the territory he wants – whether it is possible for a middle-aged gay man to reach out and help a pubescent boy without social prejudices kicking in. He concludes… well, that’s the film and I won’t ruin it, having already said a bit too much. Because it is a very slight drama, just solid enough to carry its theoretical payload, but director Patrick Stettner and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler drench everything in an oversexualised creepiness, Williams and Collette both deliver as people whose lives on the margins – his sexually determined, hers by disability and job status – have had an effect on their personalities, and there’s a welcome colour-blind aspect to the multi-ethnic casting decisions. It feels real, in other words.
The Night Listener – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2006