``The Night Listener" really wants us to know that the grubby particulars of its story have been inspired by true events. That disclaimer is just about all that keeps this absurd yet watchable thriller from going any farther off the rails. Adapted from Armistead Maupin's highly anticipated, woefully executed 2000 novel, this is surely among the best bad movies of the year. With sanctimonious Robin Williams versus blind Toni Collette, how could it not be?
Williams plays Gabriel Noonan, a famous author who gets a copy of a manuscript from a 15-year-old named Pete (Rory Culkin). It tells of abuse, torture, prostitution, and worse (syphilis at 8, AIDS by 14), and the movie is all too happy to give us quick, sordid reenactments of the memoir's horrors. Pete happens to be a fan of Gabriel's late-night radio show, which, based on the funereal way Williams speaks into the microphone, could be called ``A Scary Home Companion."
As it turns out, Gabriel is just depressed. After eight years, his handsome younger boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), is leaving him. But Jess is around often enough to find the budding phone relationship between Gabriel and the kid a little unnerving. No kidding.
Jess finds something strange about Pete's personality, an observation that strikes Gabriel as mean. But it's not long until he's off from New York to Wisconsin to see for himself if Jess is right, visiting Pete and Donna (Collette), the dowdy woman who's been taking care of him.
What ensues suggests ``Misery" as reframed through the recent JT LeRoy scandal. The movie isn't particularly well made -- director Patrick Stettner lent a defter hand to his last film, ``The Business of Strangers." What few ideas there were in Maupin's platitudinous book are now gone, courtesy, in part, of Maupin himself. So, mercifully, are a lot of the platitudes. (He, Stettner , and Terry Anderson are credited with the screenplay.)
Stettner manages to keep the pot boiling, although, sadly, it never quite runneth over. Instead, the movie trades suspense for the kind of melodramatic earnestness of which only Robin Williams seems capable. Gabriel is caught snooping and trespassing, but nothing can stop his pursuit of the truth, not even almost being hit by a speeding truck.
The actor has made Gabriel so pathetic and slightly bitter that sympathy for him often feels out of the question. Anybody who lets his accountant come over and straighten up needs to snap out of it, even if the accountant is played by Sandra Oh.
What makes the film such a guilty pleasure is how Williams's righteous self-pity is perfectly matched to Collette's nuttiness and despair. There's something nightmarish yet familiarly co-dependent about their relationship. In one terrifying scene, when Donna asks Gabriel whether he likes the sweater she's knitted for herself and he doesn't say anything, the silence hurts her feelings and makes her crazy. Suddenly, ``The Night Listener" turns into a horror film: Will and Grace go to hell.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.