Starting Out in the Evening
Director
Cast
, , ,
Rated
PG-13
Runtime
111 min.
Release Date
12/14/2007
Starting Out in the Evening

There’s a plethora of films concerning aged novelists struggling with their last book, on which they’ve been working on for years and years (think Wonder Boys). Even more films have been made about an older man’s relationship with a woman much too young for him (think Venus). Even while working in those familiar establishments, director Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening manages an effectual delicacy with the subject. More impressive are the performances in this picture, which are some of the best of this year, despite being a part of an all-too-common narrative.

In the twilight of his career, author Leonard Schiller, portrayed with flawless reservation by Frank Langella, has struggled with his current novel for ten years. After four well-received books written some time ago, as well as a spent professorship, he now lives alone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, continually working on his ever-expanding fifth novel. Schiller, at 70, has been all but forgotten by the academic community, as his level of literary intellectualism is something held onto by idealists—older writers like himself, or immature Master’s students like Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), who is writing her thesis on the archaic author.

Ms. Wolfe admires Schiller’s work, more so his first two novels that deal with independent women claiming their lives and asserting their own freedom. Her thesis remains a biographical analysis of his work, resulting from a series of interviews where she probes him for a personal history that she believes will explain his literature. But she’s also a published book critic, and reads more for her own pleasure; her thesis seems more a proposed love letter to Schiller’s work than a deep-rooted analysis. He warns her that she’s coming close to writing a puff piece on how every event in the writer’s life mirrors something in his books; she warns him not to ignore the truth that most writers work in part autobiographically. He asserts that his past was used objectively, which of course is impossible. Memory is subjective. And she forgets that criticism and analysis are also subjective, as she attempts to place definitive labels onto his career.

Schiller carries himself with impressive dignity, justifying his outdated, paradigmatic view on literature, and the world in and outside of books. He punches away on a typewriter during set working hours, attends the occasional reading or publication opening, but otherwise keeps to himself, save for regular visits from his daughter (Lili Taylor). Langella commands the role with staggering warmth offered by his deep, affecting voice. His presence onscreen is not to be ignored, and should probably receive some award consideration.

Schiller places most of his attention on his 40-year-old daughter, Ariel, who has resolved to have a child with or without a steady partner. She patches things up with ex-lover Casey (Adrian Lester), who initiated their previous break-up by insisting he didn’t want to have children, and he still doesn’t want them. Dependent but also independent, we see how she relies on her father for guidance and also how strongly she fights for her own desires. Taylor acts with sensitive quietness, as she often does; I’ve never really noticed her acting before, as it always strikes me as mousy. Here she’s surprising in her naturalistic performance, in part due to the fine script by Wagner and co-writer Fred Parnes. Her character bears a long-established animosity toward her father, since he chose writing over parenting, thus leaving his daughter feeling abandoned—and that’s to say nothing of his long dead wife, whom Schiller seems to be perpetuating onto Ariel. He sees his wife everywhere, particularly in his admiration for Heather. With two women, Ariel and now Heather, in his life, he finds signs of remembrances of his wife within them both. And perhaps that’s why he allows Heather’s romantic advances to continue, despite his initial hesitance.

The scenes between Langella and Ambrose are filmed without the strangeness we might expect from such a deliberate age difference. Langella plays such an undeniably sweet and admirable man, while Ambrose’s character is more suspect and lost, even though she appears to command herself. The movie’s theme is about women’s freedom and the men who hold them back. We feel Heather, while admiring Schiller’s strong women characters in his books, might be twisting in the wind while getting to that point herself. And yet, it’s clear the two love each other deeply, so that their most intimate moment is not a sex scene (Wagner has too much class for that), but rather a scene where the two lay fully clothed on a bed.

Based on the novel by Brian Morton, the story is self-indulgent and pretentious, characteristics which are further emphasized by cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian’s pointedly small-scale digital photography. It has the look, feel, and pace of an independent movie trying too hard to be profound. However, behind the sometimes cliché characters are wonderful performances that are undeniably hypnotizing and multilayered. Looking past the superficial problems, I found myself absorbed in the development of a writer, who at the end of his life, in spite of having every motive to give up, has found reasons enough to keep going.

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