It’s not so often that you get a movie about literary people that’s not dumbed down to appease the movie marketplace, whether commercial or arthouse. That’s why director Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening, an adaptation of Brian Morton’s novel, is such cause to rejoice — a movie about a writer, and, better yet, unafraid to depict the writer’s life exactingly and sensitively. Indeed, it reaps a great deal of dramatic power from the writer’s quotidian struggles.
This is the kind of unsexy content that would scare the pants off any film promoter or producer: Starting Out in the Evening is about as far removed from the excesses and tragically hip quotient endemic to both commercial and indie cinema these days. The result is one of the year’s most pleasing films, intelligently written and directed, and featuring a veteran actor giving the performance of his career.
As Leonard Schiller, a washed-up writer, and a holdover from the ’60s New York literary scene, Frank Langella is towering and magnificent. While critics and Academy members will most likely remember showier roles by bigger stars, Langella’s work here packs more honesty, grit, and integrity than many of the actors’ destined for Oscar recognition (and, guess what, you’ll forget all of them about by summertime anyway).
Leonard Schiller mainly keeps to himself now, in the twilight of his life and career, his books out of print, and his popularity all but diminished. Still, he plods on, struggling through the manuscript of his latest (and probably last) novel. But he’s has got a major fan in Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a spunky and overzealous graduate student. Heather is determined to resurrect Schiller’s fame by way of her dissertation, for which she requests Schiller’s blessing and cooperation.
Spurned by both his writerly ego and survival instincts, Schiller agrees, thus setting the stage for a strange, mutually dependent and destructive relationship. Ambrose plays Heather the go-getter a bit too on-the-nose, but we do understand that, for her, championing Schiller’s work is an act of celebrating a man whose work was important to her at a critical time in her life. But her connection also makes her fixation on Schiller unhealthily obsessive. We know where Heather’s going and so does Schiller, but he’s too vulnernable and in need of an ego boost to resist her advances.
Played out as affectingly is Schiller’s relationship with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) who’s in the midst of a biological-clock crisis. Ariel wants a baby, but has given up on a committed relationship with a man. Indeed, she’s given up on it such that she prefers unprotected sex with her current boyfriend in hopes she’ll get pregnant rather than pursue a serious relationship with him first. Ariel has lost her groove, and Schiller the father tries desperately to keep her from ruining her life. He’s none-too-happy about Ariel resuming a relationship with old flame Casey (Adrian Lester), the man who led her up the garden path once only to leave her stranded there. But here’s where Wager and co-writer Fred Parnes’ script acquits itself so beautifully. None of these characters — Schiller, Ariel, or Casey — act and react predictably to their circumstances: they fight, abuse, recriminate, manipulate, but in the end they choose to stick around, elevating themselves to a place they as yet had never been.
As their drama intensifies, so do the dynamics between Schiller and Heather, whose inquiries into Schiller’s private life — his rocky past marriage in particular — and whether it compromised his creative work bristles his nerves. As vexing and inappropriate as Heather’s behavior can be, Wagner and Parnes’ script underscores that it’s her youthful gratitude, a desire to revive the halcyon days of her own past (not just the writer’s), when she discovered Schiller’s work, that fuels her crusade, however wrong-headed it may be.
Starting Out features generally fine performances — though as Ariel, Lily Taylor may be too contrived in her flintiness, and Ambrose never gives Heather much emotional nuance — but it’s Langella’s work that stays with you. Some critics have charged that Langella’s role lacks humor, but it’s there in the wry smile and droll delivery, hiding behind the bespectecled eyes, a humor smoky and dry as a vintage wine. But humor is not the point here, this is the story of how a forgotten artist’s life, and his road towards reclaiming it. And Wagner and Langella have served it admirably, and their film is a godsend to those us starving for intelligent character-driven cinema.
Directed by: Andrew Wagner
Written by: Fred Parnes, Andrew Wagner
Cast: Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Adrian Lester, Anitha Gandhi, Jessica Hecht, Karl Bury