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Starting Out In the Evening

Starting Out In the Evening
2007 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 111 min. / Street Date April 22, 2008 / 27.98
Starring Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lily Taylor, Adrian Lester, Michael Cumpsty
Cinematography Harlan Bosmajian
Production Design Carol Strober
Film Editor Gena Bleier
Original Music Adam Gorgoni
Written by Fred Parnes, Andrew Wagner from a novel by Brian Morton
Produced by Jake Abraham, Nancy Israel, John Sloss, Gary Winick
Directed by Andrew Wagner

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Starting Out In the Evening is a quiet, thoughtful drama about an aging literary figure's involvement with a young graduate student eager to reawaken his career. I suppose it's the fantasy of every aging English professor falling into decrepitude to be "rescued" by a beautiful young thing who understands him. Do they make those women anymore? Back at UCLA in the early 1970s it seemed that few liberal arts professor were lacking an admiring young consort of one kind or another.

Andrew Wagner's film will work depending on whether or not one accepts its shaky central relationship. It's the kind of show in which characters relate to one another in literary terms. Starting Out's strongest asset is the measured performance of Frank Langella as the old writer aware that the clock is running out on his ambitions. The movie has some questionable elements, but Langella gives it gravity and dignity.


In declining health, teacher and novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) toils over a novel he's been working on for ten years. He's visited by Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under), a Brown student inspired by his earlier books. Leonard resists but is soon spending time with Heather, discussing his career for her graduate thesis. Meanwhile, Heather also does her gentle best to seduce him. A witness to this process is Leonard's daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), who is working out her relationship with her boyfriend Casey Davis (Adrian Lester). Heather renews hope that Leonard's writing will be rediscovered, but also brings an emotional stress he isn't used to ... and cannot maintain.

Movies about great writers have a major problem. Unable to present Dr. Zhivago's poetry directly, David Lean instead depicts creative genius through images of flowers blooming and snowflakes melting. The pretty pictures still don't convince us that Omar Sharif can write. Starting Out In the Evening makes use of a great deal of high-toned literary discussion, but Frank Langella's authoritative intelligence is what convinces us that he's a great talent. Even when the literary banter wears thin, Langella comes off as the real deal.

To that extent the movie works. We respond to Leonard Schiller's devotion to his art and accept him as a writer whose writing evolved as he aged, from his spirited early books to less accessible 'mature' works later on. Accepting Leonard's eager young disciple Heather Wolfe is less easy. We're meant to think that Heather Wolfe is a true intellectual drawn to Leonard's great prose, and that her admiration is mature and profound. She's from Brown, after all, and despite the fact that she seems to have no contact whatsoever with the Providence campus, she talks a sharp line of literary criticism.

Or does she? Starting Out In the Evening's picture of the hoity-toity New York world of writing isn't a very pretty one. With all of his books out of print, Leonard must abase himself before a publishing executive to raise some interest in his new work. Heather comes on to Leonard as a wide-eyed idealist, but she knows instinctively how to work a room and pique the interest of a connected magazine editor (Jessica Hecht). When these young critics aren't savaging writers with withering opinions, they're challenging each other with 'civilized' jabs. The editor defends her position in commercial publishing but has no problem alluding to Leonard in a demeaning sexual context. To her Leonard is a fossil, an "old white guy who goes to bed early."

Heather exploits Leonard's age in much the same way, offering herself as a bon-bon under the illusion that her sexual spark will revive his writing spirit. Heather also sees it as her privilege to psychoanalyze Leonard. The hook for her thesis paper is that the life went out of Leonard's writing years ago when his wife left him. Although he objects, Heather gets away with jamming Leonard into a snug literary pigeonhole: he allows her to define his life.

After all of this supposed profundity, the solution to the riddle of Leonard Schiller turns out to be something Barbara Walters would harp on. Heather is a hungry bundle of ambition feeding off an easily controlled old man, not even realizing that she's a user.

One thing Starting Out In the Evening gets right is the actual sex relationship between Heather and Leonard. Part of the presumed thrill of May-December romances comes from the rejuvenation fantasy of seeing the dried-up old coot spring to sexual life. It's usually a male film star past his prime but not yet in his dotage, a bona fide dreamboat like Michael Caine or William Holden who, if he wanted to, could really show Little Trixie how it's done. Leonard Schiller is a different case. He knows he already has one foot in the grave, and acts accordingly. He moves slowly and feels everything intensely. We get the idea that Leonard is remembering intimacy, not celebrating a centennial jubilee. Anything like exertion would finish him off. If this were a thriller, Heather would be pushing a life insurance policy under his nose.

What exactly are we to make of the redheaded Heather, the adventurous young necrophile? Heather's into self-advancement, not sex, and surely thinks of herself as a glorious physical muse to the great man whose life will provide the springboard for her career. Leonard objects only when Heather patronizes him with assurances that his new book will be his best. Her 'encouraging' words earn her a fast slap. After having his career autopsied by this woman, Leonard knows that his new novel has gone in the wrong direction. He may have next to no time left, but he's ready to start again.

That's one interpretation of Starting Out In the Evening; I'd be ready to reconsider it if either Andrew Wagner's direction or Lauren Ambrose's performance suggested that Heather was greater than the sum of her slick author-talk, or anything less than a career leech. Ms. Ambrose has a pair of moles on her left cheek that in long shots look like tears. But they aren't, and they remind us that Heather maintains her composure no matter what happens to Leonard, whose true function is to provide a foundation for her career as a critic.

Lili Taylor is the "alive" alternative to Heather, an unambitious woman who wants nothing to do with cocktail dresses or the refined Manhattan chit-chat that goes with them. Ariel's a yoga instructor who breaks off a promising relationship with a lawyer (Michael Cumpsty) because it doesn't feel right. That's because she knows she's really in love with Casey, a less perfect guy who won't commit to the idea of having children. Ariel is interesting, but still comes off as a dramatic construction, a sidebar commenting on her father's earlier inability to commit to instinctual choices. Her boyfriend Casey earns our respect by helping the old man through a rough and humiliating day -- ironically proving himself a "good parent", etc.

Starting Out In the Evening is filmed in a consistent autumnal glow conducive to its theme. The low budget film looks handsome and attractive throughout. Concern for the Leonard Schiller character keeps our interest at a high level, even as we feel that the movie wrongly accepts Heather Wolfe at face value. Heather's love for Leonard may be sincere. But anyone with life experience in academia will immediately recognize the type; Schiller must have met at least one of these goo-goo eyed nymphs every semester. Starting Out In the Evening doesn't even seem to be aware of the phenomenon. Frank Langella's marvelous Leonard carries the day.

Lionsgate's Starting Out In the Evening disc is a fine rendering of this box office non-starter that attracted many admiring notices. The enhanced transfer is sharp and attractive; the fact that the film was shot on HD video is nigh undetectable. The show comes with a TV spot, a trailer and a commentary by its director Andrew Wagner. The smooth-voiced Wagner uses much of his commentary to analyze the story and its meanings. All well and good, but his movie already speaks very well for itself. If Wagner breaks it down so neatly now, what will he leave for a graduate student to uncover when he's an elderly auteur looking for a comeback?

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Starting Out In the Evening rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, Director commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 30, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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