STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING (2007, directed by Andrew Wagner, 111 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
The actor Frank Langella’s name is always afforded the greatest respect by serious watchers of theater, although the genius he has shown on stage has seldom been visible in his film work. Langella made his big screen splash in 1979, recreating his stage role in John Badham’s Dracula (poorly-received it was quickly dubbed “Disco Dracula” by wags because Badham previously directed Saturday Night Fever and from then on, you’d be hard pressed to find an actor of his reputation who has appeared in more marginal, forgettable fare. With director Andrew Wagner’s sophomore film Starting Out in the Evening, the 70-year-old Langella has finally found a role worthy of his weary and intelligent presence. It’s about time.
Langella gives a seamless performance as Leonard Schiller, a New York City novelist in declining health who lives under the quietly worshipful eye of his middle-aged daughter Ariel (the always intriguing Lili Taylor). Leonard’s previous books once had his name being mentioned alongside Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, yet presently he sits alone, typing out a long-gestating novel without a publisher while the four novels that make up his life’s work have lapsed out of print.
His moribund existence is unexpectedly enlivened by the arrival of Heather (Lauren Ambrose, best remembered as art school mope Clare in Six Feet Under), a Brown student who is writing her thesis on Leonard’s work. When Leonard first declines her wish for an interview she awkwardly kisses his hand which awakens something deep inside this highly controlled man, suddenly nudging him back to life just as he’s feeling death’s chill.
Starting Out In The Evening has been sold as a May/September romance (no doubt a favorite fantasy of aging men) yet the fleeting physicality between this odd couple is hardly the point of the story. Of chief concern is Leonard’s soul, which seems to be dissipating as steadily as his health and we’re led to believe his writing won’t come alive again until he faces the questions his daughter and his number one fan confront him with. Director Wagner could have gone big and sentimental with this scenario (I’m aware that the storyline reads a bit like bad Neil Simon), but he keeps the drama restrained and the details unpredictable, leaving many of the character’s questions tantalizingly unanswered.
As Ariel, Taylor captures the subtle tension that lies beneath her functional yet melancholy character, who seems destined to chase detached men who share her father’s disposition. Lauren Ambrose finesses an even more difficult role, making the ambitious Heather believable even though the script never makes quite clear what she’s searching for in Leonard.
What we do learn about these women we learn through Leonard, who remains a sympathetic old gentleman despite his prickly demands for decorum and distance. With a complete lack of theatrics, Langella inhabits this frightened yet dignified man, drawing an added depth from the weathered and overcast atmosphere of his Upper West Side neighborhood. Reportedly shot for a paltry $500,000 Starting Out In The Evening keeps its forlorn characters on a modest scale while Langella’s quiet performance delivers something truly grand.