The Listener (2024)

Tessa Thompson stars in Steve Buscemi’s “The Listener.”

Misdialed ‘Listener’ fails to heed the call

As a relic of the COVID era, Steve Buscemi’s “The Listener” is three years late and a rewrite short of compelling viewing. As its dynamic star, Tessa Thompson does everything in her power to prop up a dull, listless script about a hotline operator dispensing platitudes to a half-dozen lonely, desperate callers awash in self-pity. But irony of ironies, your instinct is not to empathize, but to tune out.

In his return to feature-film directing, Buscemi could not have found a more expressive face than Thompson’s to train his camera. She projects as kind, caring and approachable, everything you’d want from a lead character. But for the majority of his movie’s 96 minutes, Buscemi cages her inside the tight quarters of a dimly lit apartment overlooking an unspecified city. There’s no room for her – or us – to breathe. The claustrophobia is suffocating. You want out, but there’s no escape. Or, at least that’s the vibe.

It’s a hazard unique to a growing genre of what I call “Frasier” flicks that cop the sitcom’s device of fixing the camera on Kelsey Grammer’s reactions as his radio talk-show host, Frasier Crane, fields calls from a plethora of unseen guest stars. A couple of these endeavors, namely “The Guilty” and “Locke,” succeed in luring you in and taking hold. But it’s a tricky balance requiring the right mix of fleshing out a character’s history while simultaneously ratcheting up the tension. “The Listener” fails at both.

Much of the blame traces to Alessandro Camon, whose half-baked script rarely presents a reason to care about Thompson’s Beth or her callers’ desperate cries for help. The sources of ennui range from a disabled veteran dealing with PTSD; a teenage incel nursing an acute case of misogyny; a bitter woman with an undiscovered gift for poetry; and the picture’s centerpiece, a recently fired college professor whose dark pontifications on the benefits of suicide cause Beth to finally drop her defenses and open up about her own self-inflicted misery. The latter is voiced nicely by Thompson’s “Passing” director, Rebecca Hall, who provides the film’s lone spark.

Their constantly evolving conversation transpires during the final 30 minutes, culminating in nothing less than a debate over the existence of God. It’s a bit much, indicative of an overconfident screenwriter. Like much of what precedes it, the dialogue comes off as forced, clunky and less than genuine. It’s almost as if Camon (the Oscar-nominated “The Messenger”) is spouting an agenda more than expressing compassion for the disenfranchised and how their sense of isolation was exacerbated by the pandemic.

The movie treats these profound existential crises with such detached coldness that it often feels at odds with itself. You admire the effort to give voice to the unseen, but to do it in such a clumsy, exploitative manner borders on the obscene. Instead of stirring the masses, all the “The Listener” does is fall on deaf ears.

Movie review

The Listener

Rated: Not rated

Cast: Tessa Thompson; and the voices of Rebecca Hall, Margaret Cho, Alia Shawkat and Logan Marshall-Green

Director: Steve Buscemi

Writer: Alessandro Camon

Runtime: 96 minutes

Where: In theaters and on VOD beginning March 29

Grade: C

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