In 1993, a teenage writer named Anthony Godby Johnson attained brief literary celebrity with the book A Rock And A Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story. A victim of horrific physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his parents and their friends—and an AIDS patient, no less—Johnson did in fact make for a triumphant story. Writer Paul Monette, dying of AIDS himself at the time, wrote the book's foreword, and Armistead Maupin wrote a blurb. Trouble is, Johnson seems never to have existed outside the active imagination of his "adoptive mother." Maupin's involvement with the situation inspired him to write the novel The Night Listener, now the source of a dark thriller directed by Patrick Stettner.
Robin Williams plays a Maupin-like author whose radio broadcast recounting his friendship with "Pete Logand" (played in some scenes by Rory Culkin) frames the film. Falling hard for the kid's hard-luck tale—and struck by the fine quality of his writing—Williams becomes a friend and benefactor, only reluctantly beginning to doubt when friends point out some inconsistencies in the Pete Logand story. Without the knowledge of Pete's mom (Toni Collette), Williams heads to rural Wisconsin to ease his suspicions.
Williams delivers a solid, twinkle-free (though closed-off) performance, but the film as a whole can't decide what it wants to be. It alternates Brian De Palma-inspired suspense sequences with ruminations on Williams' failing romantic relationship and sharp—if overly emphatic observations—about how all writers make fictions of their lies, even when they aren't inventing lives whole-cloth. But for all its divided attention, The Night Listener mostly works anyway: It benefits from the timeliness of this year's fake-writer unmaskings and timeless concerns about how people with a gift for putting words together can rework the world in their image, regardless of whether they should have that power.