Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Armistead Maupin this haunting albeit slow moving mystery follows the disturbingly eerie twists and turns that unfold in the relationship between a popular late-night radio host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) who is in the throes of his own personal crisis and a devoted 14 year-old listener named Pete (Rory Culkin) who has written a memoir describing a terrifying childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse. What begins as a long-distance phone relationship the wounded Gabriel soon bonds with the precocious boy as a surrogate father. But things start to get dicey when Gabriel grows more and more suspicious of Pete’s overprotective adopted mother (Toni Collette). Suddenly Gabriel finds himself on a desperate quest to uncover the elusive truth on whether Pete’s stories are for real or more importantly if Pete even exists at all. Many may forget that Williams is a Julliard-trained actor. He can handle emotional range and has done so in films such as Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting which won him his Oscar. Of course we still love it when he acts like a nut. In fact during certain moments in Listener when Williams is on the radio you half expect the funnyman to yell “Good Morning Vietnam!” But of course the 55 year-old Williams has obviously matured and is easily convincing as the low-key Gabriel dealing with the demise of his 10 year relationship with his lover played nicely by Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) as well as trying to unravel this strange mystery which grows more macabre by the minute. Matching Williams' intensity is Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) as Pete’s enigmatic mom Donna who is pretty much the center of all the creepiness. The underrated actress is one of those performers who generally throws vanity aside to dig deep and give honest portrayals no matter how twisted they are. It’s evident The Night Listener is something close to Maupin’s heart having had a similar real-life experience with his ex-partner Terry Anderson and a young devoted fan. The screenplay was adapted by the acclaimed author along with Anderson and Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers)—who takes the helm on this psychological thriller—so it’s no surprise how well they tap into the same nightmarish journey the bestselling page-turner takes you on. Listener explores the nature of lies and how much we are willing to believe them when in an emotional crisis. And much like a great Hitchcock thriller Stettner also keeps you on your toes by peeling away each layer the deeper Gabriel gets involved. After flying to the where Pete is suppose to live things really start to get weird until Gabriel finally asks “What the hell am I doing here?” It’s a very valid question. But that’s sort of the beauty of the film. You’re expecting any manner of bad things to happen but are surprised by the outcome nonetheless.
Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a Latino drug dealer from the East Bronx and a very good businessman in his way. He knows that money is master and he's got a lot of it--about $4 million liquid cash stored at the apartments of various downtrodden acquaintances whose rent he pays in exchange for the favor. Aside from occasional bloodshed life is good but when Victor's girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) gets pregnant he decides to go legit and his remarkable street savvy means very little in the face of so-called legitimate business. He's incredibly naïve and the mistakes he makes along the way cost him dearly. First he teams up with Carmen's friend Trish's (Denise Richards) boyfriend Jack (Peter Sarsgaard) an investment banker--mistake number one. Then because drug dealing isn't an easy profession to phase oneself out of Victor cuts a deal with his boss La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini) promising her a 500 percent return on a $1.5 million investment if she lets him out of his territory unscathed. That was mistake number two as Victor discovers when Jack turns out to be significantly less legit than he seems (see mistake number one). Of course the whole point of this mess is that you can't tell the good guys from the bad just by looking at them especially if they're all pretty much bad to the bone.
Leguizamo a Colombian-born New York-based actor known since 1995's House of Buggin' for his biting standup comedy and satirical bent attempts to prove in Empire that he can still hold his own in a dramatic role. While he makes a valiant effort Empire is not a film that showcases his dramatic talents to their best effect. If we were to take each scene as an individual vignette it would have to be said that the cast plays them at least passably and sometimes exceptionally well. But a film is more than a series of scenes strung together. In Empire the actions and emotions the characters display in one scene are often completely unconnected to the actions and emotions they display in the next which results in a sad lack of continuity and motivation that must be blamed less on the actors and more on the script and the direction. You know something's wrong when the actors who come off best are the ones with the most one-dimensional characters: in this case Richards as Carmen's two-faced friend Rossellini as the hard-hearted drug queenpin and Sarsgaard as the slick investment banker.
That brings us to the directing issue. Empire written and directed by Franc. Reyes is a film with something to say about the urban Latino culture and community a group of people who get very little chance in the mainstream American media to say much of anything. He should be commended for that. It's unfortunate however that he uses every played-out trick in the urban-cinema book to get his message across. From casting rappers (Fat Joe and Treach from Naughty by Nature) to draw in the crowds to shooting drug deals and fight sequences with jerky handheld cameras to wallowing in creepy slow-motion funeral scenes Empire doesn't bring anything new to the bad-drug-dealer-tries-to-go-good plotline except perhaps an uninspired--if seldom used--punch line best encapsulated by Fat Joe who attended the screening Hollywood.com attended and had this to say to the crowd in the theater "Don't be fooled by the shoot 'em up bang bang…if you use drugs or sell drugs…you're gonna die."