Wearing an overcoat of emotional bruises, Robin Williams plays a middle-aged gay writer and radio host being dumped by his younger boyfriend in this adaptation of Armistead Maupin's 2000 novel, in which real injuries unexpectedly follow the heartache. The book was based on an actual incident in the early '90s, when Maupin developed a telephone friendship with a Midwestern teen writer, which helped console him as his lover was leaving. (If you haven't read it, I'm not going to divulge how those parallel stories develop.) As in Good Will Hunting and One Hour Photo, Williams here flips the switch to show us the other side of manic—the depressive ebb, vitality gone, an anemic soul desperate for transfusion. As his character, Gabriel, is told, "All you care about is your audience loving you."
And love—if only over the telephone line—is what he thinks he finds from a 14-year-old Wisconsin boy, Pete (Rory Culkin), whose horrific memoir he's been given to blurb as a distraction from losing Jess (Bobby Cannavale). Pete writes of being used as a sex slave by his parents, pimped out for Internet smut videos until their arrest. Now, apparently dying from AIDS, he's fiercely protected by his adoptive mother, Donna (Toni Collette).
Wow—Gabriel recognizes how his "grabby little armchair yarns" (as he calls them in the book) can't compare. Yet Pete turns out to be a fan, and self-doubting Gabriel is flattered, energized by their tender, almost paternal relationship. Williams shows us the new pleasure the somewhat stuffy Gabriel finds in saying "dude" to Pete; it's like waking up one day and discovering you speak French. Suddenly life seems to offer possibilities that his tapped-out fictions cannot. Yet each plan for a Wisconsin visit is preempted by Pete's many trips to the hospital. Frustrated, Gabriel finally buys a fateful ticket to the snowy Midwest to find him.
Maupin's source novel was recognized, correctly, as a step out of the Castro and into Stephen King territory (with Henry James also on the border), but it's only one step. Maupin, his ex-boyfriend, and director Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers) all collaborated on the script, which doesn't fully commit to being a thriller in Wisconsin, and features rather too much hand-holding and hugs of reconciliation back in Manhattan. Maupin is simply too nice, too generous, which doesn't permit Stettner to make Night Listener sufficiently nasty. For all the talk of writers appropriating and abusing the lives of those they pin to the page, you never get the feeling that anyone here is willing to kill for the sake of a good story. BRIAN MILLER