Starting Out in the Evening

A superb performance by Frank Langella anchors the exceedingly literate, engrossing Starting Out in the Evening, a richly drawn and for the most part artfully understated portrait of an aged novelist struggling with the flickering flame of creativity’s muse.

Langella's Leonard Schiller is a once-famous New York writer now given to small, pedestrian rituals — the standard analogue man in an increasingly digital world. His books long out-of-print, Leonard doesn’t take a freelance gig writing advertising copy because he deems it an objectionable compromise; he instead pecks away at a novel he’s been working on for more than a decade, and enjoys get-togethers with his adult daughter, yoga instructor Ariel (Lili Taylor). Despite having suffered a heart attack the previous year, Leonard still doesn’t have much use for self-reflection until Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), an ambitious grad student defined by an obscure hunger for self-definition, enters his life. Leonard’s early novels had an electrifying impact on Heather, and she now wants to use her thesis project to spur a rediscovery of his work.

At once shaken and emboldened by their challenging interview sessions, Leonard’s staid, respectful tolerance for Heather slowly melts into consideration. An indefinable and precarious intimacy develops between them, but the stars in Heather’s eyes dim when she slowly comes to the conclusion that Leonard is too closed-off from certain unacknowledged traumas of his past to ever again write a truly great book. This cooling coincides, meanwhile, with an unexpected turn in Ariel’s life when she rekindles a relationship with ex-boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester), a matter that greatly worries Leonard given their differing priorities (she wants kids, Casey avowedly doesn’t) in life.

Langella is well known for his stage portrayals of larger-than-life characters — including Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, among others — but his perfectly modulated performance here is one of managed disappointment. Leonard is an emotionally imploded man, able, in his great intellect, to parse and justify his self-interested behaviors. In his stillness and the consistency of his proper actions (both in movement and diction), Langella captures the character’s regret in evocative fashion before the story even spells out the particulars.

Adapted by Fred Parnes and director Wagner from Brian Morton’s novel of the same name, Starting Out in the Evening is characterized by a great and involving sense of character detail; the movie grapples in an intellectually honest fashion with notions of aging, responsibility and reinvention, and how they intersect with creative fire. Through it all, Wagner (2005 Sundance entry The Talent Given Us) trades in an unfussy style that keeps the focus firmly on his characters. The one big knock on the movie is that it has such a strong sense of Leonard that Heather is a bit recklessly sketched. While intelligently written — she’s certainly no bubbled-headed ditz — the manner in which she, and the movie, eventually address the inevitable elephant in the room, the potential of romantic connection, rings false. Heather’s occasional lack of recognition at how others perceive her actions also seems implausible, and after a while, her pluck becomes a bit irksome. For the full original review, from Screen International, click here.


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