Williams is New York radio show host Gabriel Noone, whose program consists of stories culled from his own real-life experiences. Pained from a fresh break-up with his longtime lover Jess (Bobby Cannavale), Gabriel's unhappiness and general state of distraction makes work and everyday life particularly challenging to get through. His outlook changes when his publisher friend Ashe (Joe Morton) shows him a manuscript written by a terminal teenager named Pete, who is suffering the ravages of advanced HIV. The painful memoir details Pete's childhood years of sexual and mental abuse at the hands of his parents, and Gabriel, upon learning that the boy is a fan of his radio show, initiates a telephone conversation that develops into an ongoing friendship with both Pete and Pete's protective foster mother Donna (Toni Collette).
Gabriel's telephone relationship with the Wisconsin-based family becomes steadily more involved until one afternoon, with Jess in his apartment, Gabriel puts Pete and Donna on the speakerphone. It immediately occurs to Jess that the two voices are identical. Gabriel, who keeps a photo of Pete on display, initially is reluctant to accept that his deep affection was duped by an identity charade. His suspicions, however, gradually increase as he learns that neither Ashe nor anyone from his publishing company has ever met the manuscript's author in person. When Donna asks Gabriel to postpone a scheduled visit because Pete's illness takes a turn for the worst, Gabriel becomes desperate to know if Pete really exists and makes a secret trip to the Midwest to attempt to find out the truth.
Fresh from the controversies of J.T. LeRoy and James Frey, whose memoirs have been exposed to contain exaggerations and whole chunks of straight-out fictions, the intrigue behind "The Night Listener's" authorial mystery could benefit from a coincidental timeliness with recent real-world events. Other than this verisimilitude, the film derives its force from director Patrick Stettner's touch at sustaining a dark and foreboding mood that permeates from the moment Gabriel's skepticism is raised to the conclusion of his investigations.
Character development, however, is perhaps the largest sacrifice in the printed word-to-screen transfer of "The Night Listener," with Toni Collette's emotionally torn Donna particularly under-examined. Starring Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Joe Morton, Rory Culkin and Sandra Oh. Directed by Patrick Stettner. Written by Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson and Patrick Stettner. Produced by Robert Kessel, Jeffrey Sharp, John N. Hart and Jill Footlick. A Miramax release. Mystery/Thriller. Rated R for language and some disquieting sexual content. Running time: 90 min