In 1993, a young writer named Anthony Godby Johnson released his first and only published book, A Rock and a Hard Place, a memoir of the years of physical and sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents and their friends. Tony had been rescued by social worker Vicki Johnson, who took the unusual step of adopting the abused boy. Vicki gave Tony the closest thing he’d ever had to a real family, though being infected with both syphilis and AIDS — the legacies of the adults who had passed him around like a breathing sex toy — made school and a normal adolescent social life impossible. What Tony had instead were relationships conducted by letter, email, and telephone and in online chat rooms, many of them with celebrities: writers including Paul Monette and Tom Robbins, television personalities like Keith Olbermann and Fred Rogers, even Jermaine Jackson counted Tony as a friend. It took a couple of years before anyone began to wonder why no one but Vicki Johnson had ever met him in person.
One of the eventual skeptics was Tony’s phone-friend Armistead Maupin, author of the Tales of the City books, whose lover at the time, Terry Anderson, had noticed the unusual similarity between Tony and Vicki’s voices. Maupin didn’t want to believe that the boy in whom he had invested so much emotionally, who had become a surrogate son to him, was merely the creation of Vicki’s deranged or malicious mind, but her careful omission of any details that might be confirmed and her refusals to allow anyone to meet Tony seemed to justify his fears. Having always mined his own experiences for his fiction, Maupin soon realized that his bizarrely paternal relationship with Tony would make rich fodder for a novel. Heavily fictionalized, with many details changed to protect Tony, whom he still wanted to believe might exist, Maupin’s The Night Listener was published in 2000. The novel uses his experiences with Tony as a vehicle to explore loss, trust, the many definitions of “family,” the fragility of human connections, and the writer’s need to embellish experience, to make it tidier and give it the structure that real life almost always lacks. The new film adaptation, in its own way, is an extension of that theme — it’s an exploration of Hollywood’s need to turn every story into one of a handful of “marketable” formulas.
Patrick Stettner, the director and co-writer (along with Maupin and Anderson), is making only his second feature, following 2001’s The Business of Strangers, but he already shows the instincts of a seasoned hack. The novel spools its plot out gradually, with regular flashbacks to earlier events in the life of Gabriel Noone — the book’s narrator and Maupin’s alter ego — that give the story context and add emotional resonance to Noone’s relationship with the mysterious figure at its center. There’s none of that context here, and little room for resonance, as Stettner abridges the first two-thirds of the novel into the first third of the film, making room for a wholly new second act and conclusion that clumsily cram every trope of the thriller genre into Maupin’s melancholy tale.
The film’s (partial) salvation comes — oddly enough — from Robin Williams, an actor I’d just about given up on. As Noone, an emotionally devastated man unable to recover from being dumped by his lover Jess (Bobby Cannavale), Williams gives one of his best, most restrained performances. I can’t count the times I’ve seen Williams do that prim little grimace that signals supreme discomfort, yet he does something unexpected with it here, wearing it almost nonstop, using it as a distancing device between not only himself and others but between himself and his own emotions. It’s the expression of a man who wants to disappear, who’s given up on life and is going through the motions only because he can’t bring himself to end it. It’s been clear for years that Dramatic Robin Williams could be a very different actor (and a vastly less annoying one) from Comic Robin Williams, but it’s always been his fierce intensity — which is really just another side of the hyperactive neediness of his comic persona — that set the dramatic performances apart. Here though, it’s the lack of overt intensity, the recessiveness of the performance, that is so remarkable (though his unconvincing, inconsistent Tidewater accent is distracting).
Williams has solid support from Cannavale and Joe Morton in small, underwritten roles; from Rory Culkin as Pete Logand, the abused child seen in Noone’s imaginings; and especially from the always-great Sandra Oh as Anna, Noone’s bookkeeper and confidant. But his most significant relationship is with Toni Collette’s Donna Logand, the fictionalized version of the fictionalizer Vicki Johnson. Collette is one of the great chameleons of contemporary film, able to move from the blowsy sexpot of The Last Shot to the dumpy depressive of In Her Shoes without a hitch, and here again she delivers a distinctive, compelling performance, playing a woman who can segue from charming to unsettling with a slight change of expression. In both life and Maupin’s novel, it’s difficult to get solid read on Vicki/Donna — in what proportions does she deserve our pity or our contempt? With the thriller elements Stettner has added, there’s the additional consideration that we might need to fear for Noone’s safety. Even in repose, Donna carries a faint charge of menace, and when Noone challenges her illusions — accuses her of manufacturing a dying son to manipulate others — she becomes a credible threat. The film remains ambiguous about just how many lies she’s told and what her real motives are, which is an effective suspense-builder for a while, but it gradually goes so far over the top that her final scene shows her walking away from the camera like Anthony Hopkins at the close of The Silence of the Lambs. I enjoy some cheesy melodrama as much as anyone, but this is a bit excessive even for me.
While I’m disappointed with Stettner’s approach, I do have some sympathy for him. Adapting a novel into a film is never easy; even books that seem very cinematic on the page often don’t lend themselves readily to the translation to film. I often think that Horton Foote’s screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird offers an ideal approach: Select the book’s most important elements, reproduce them as faithfully as possible, and throw out everything else. I’m afraid, though, that if you handed Mockingbird to Patrick Stettner, he’d focus on the last section of the book and make Boo Radley a serial killer.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Night Listener / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | August 4, 2006 | Comments ()