Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening just may be the best film of 2007 that you’ve probably never heard of. That might have been different had Frank Langella gotten an Oscar nomination (which many critics predicted and which Langella deserved) for the film. But he didn’t. The fact that the film was distributed by the small Roadside Attractions outfit was certainly no help, though in their favor, it was one of the first “for your consideration” screeners to come my way at the beginning of the awards push. I’d never heard of the movie at the time, and I approached it with some caution. It proved to be one of the delights of the screening season.
Despite its title (taken from the novel by Brian Morton), Starting Out in the Evening is not a road movie—unless we’re talking allegorically. It’s the fairly small, quietly intense story of a 70-year-old writer, Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), a man whose works were once taken rather seriously. Time—and a prolonged period of not publishing anything—has passed, and Schiller finds his books out of print and his name largely unknown, even while he strives to complete a novel he’s been working on for 10 years (much to the disinterest of the publishing world). A widower, Schiller lives alone in his New York apartment, with daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) occasionally checking in on him while he tries to finish his book.
His life changes, however, when an enthusiastic graduate student, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose, TV’s Six Feet Under), decides to do her thesis on him—a work she feels sure will resurrect his career. Reluctant at first to have anything to do with her, Schiller is worn down by her persistence and enthusiasm—and, it must be added, the hero-worshipping attention of a pretty young woman. The film then charts their relationship, and along with it, the relationship of Ariel and her ex-boyfriend, Casey (Adrian Lester, The Day After Tomorrow).
The film pays almost as much attention to the sub-plot involving Ariel and Casey. This is because it’s essential to the structure of the story, since the protective Schiller remembers all too well how devastated Ariel was over her breakup with Casey (grounded in her wanting children that he doesn’t want). The interconnections of these relationships—the dynamics among the four characters constantly shifting—are what gives the film a sense of urgency and the feeling of reality.
Otherwise, Starting Out in the Evening might have seemed a rather dry film about people who actually care about literature—a tough sell in these times. And yet, that’s what a great deal of the film is about—but it’s also about the nature of hero worship and the forms that it can take, not to mention the disappointments it’s likely to create for both parties. It’s slowly apparent that Heather is fixated on Schiller—to the point of being at least a little in love with him—but it’s the Schiller of her imagining, a younger, more vital Schiller. She even pilfers a photo of him as a young man.
More, she wants him to conform to that image and of her youthful idea of what a writer should be. She wants answers to questions—specific answers—that Schiller either doesn’t know himself, or doesn’t want to discuss. She’s determined to see autobiography in his work—to the degree that when she can’t find it in his two later books, she deems them inferior. Beyond that, she finds that much of what does smack of autobiography is closer to Schiller’s view of life as he would have liked it to be, rather than what it really was. In turn, each person is disillusioned, and their disillusion is mirrored in the equally seemingly unworkable relationship of Ariel and Casey.
How all this is explored I leave to the viewer to find out, but it’s safe to say that little is ever quite what it seems in the course of the film. It’s not a flashy movie, but it’s a satisfying one that observes its drama with both sympathy and a rich vein of dry humor. Ambrose, Taylor and Lester are excellent, but Langella is frankly remarkable in the lead role. There are many reasons to see Starting Out in the Evening, but seeing this underrated actor in a role fully worthy of his talents is at the top of them. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief nudity.