MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Blurring the line between real life and fiction is a favorite tool of entertainment these days. Reality TV shows often manipulate reality. Confessional memoirs sometimes feature confessions that aren't real.

Now a movie called The Night Listener adds a new wrinkle. It's about a radio show based on a memoir, and the film itself is based on a novel that was based on a real event.

And Bob Mondello says that's just the start of the complications.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Gabriel Noone is a radio storyteller, and since he's played by motor mouth Robin Williams, you hardly expect him to be at a loss for words. But when we meet him, Gabriel is fresh out of stories. For years he has used his own life and that of his lover to weave first-person tales for his radio show. That they're both HIV positive has made them especially poignant for listeners. But now Gabriel's lover is leaving him, bringing their story to an end.

(Soundbite of The Night Listener)

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Gabriel Noone) I don't understand what's happening.

Mr. BOBBY CANNAVALE (Actor): (As Jess) When I moved in with you, I was barely out of college. And all I wanted to do was take care of you.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And you don't think I wanted to take care of you?

Mr. CANNAVALE: I'm not saying that.

Mr. WILLIAMS: But that's what you think.

Mr. CANNAVALE: Gabriel, for eight years I was going to die, and now it looks like I'm not going to, and I want to see what that feels like.

MONDELLO: See what it feels like alone, which may be why Gabriel gets so wrapped up in an unpublished manuscript that a friend shows him. It, too, is a first-person narrative, the harrowing autobiography of a 14-year-old named Pete, who is also HIV positive and dying after years of abuse.

Now in foster care, Pete turns out to be a fan of Gabriel's, and soon the radio personality is having long chats with the boy on the phone and also with his protective foster-mom, Donna, who is played by Toni Collette.

But something doesn't quite feel right. Donna and Pete sound a lot alike, and Gabriel starts to suspect he's being scammed, a suspicion that grows stronger when he pays them an unannounced visit.

(Soundbite of The Night Listener)

Ms. TONI COLLETTE (Actress): (As Donna Logand) You don't believe us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I do.

Ms. COLLETTE: Let's just forget about tomorrow.

Mr. WILLIAMS: No, I want to see him. I spent the last two days stumbling around this place just so I can say -

Ms. COLLETTE: Just so you could say what? That you were sorry for thinking I'm a fraud? Give me a break. Pete needs people who are really there for him, and there's no way I'm taking you to see him, no way.

MONDELLO: Which of course leaves things inconclusive. Does the boy exist, and how can Gabriel be sure, one way or the other? Which is, as it happens, pretty much the situation that novelist Armistead Maupin found himself in in a real-life scenario that led him to write the book The Night Listener. And questions of authenticity have plagued other journalists, from reporters at major newspapers to staffers on the Oprah Winfrey show.

The fact that some of the memoir writers involved have confessed to things they haven't actually done adds a certain edge to what director Patrick Stettner puts onscreen, but it also complicates his task. To keep us guessing, he has to keep us in the dark about the characters, and because we don't get to know them, it's hard to care much whether they're telling the truth.

The performers are fine, but they're hamstrung, and to compensate, the director lays on the atmosphere. But the pace is solemn, and the story starts to flatten out at about the moment you want it to building to a big finish. The Night Listener is not, in short, a story likely to keep you up nights.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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