[18 May 2008]
Starting Out in the Evening is the story of an aged writer’s struggle against the twilight of his waning days and the quiet rage of never having been granted his full day in the sun. Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is one of the few remaining literary lions of the 1950s and ‘60s still navigating the beauty and cruelty of New York City’s intellectual milieu. In his prime, Schiller was once part of an exciting cultural circle that included such authorial heavyweights as Saul Bellows and Delmore Schwartz. Now in his 70s, Schiller is worn down by his wife’s death, his failing health, and the specter of his own absence both in life and on the page.
Having never quite reached the pinnacle of success his contemporaries enjoyed (or that he himself feels was owed him) Schiller’s four published novels are long out of print and his impact on the literary world he so loves is mostly forgotten. For the last several years, following his retirement from his university professorship, he has lived a monastic life in his Upper West Side apartment trying to type out (literally—on a classic black typewriter) what he knows will be his last novel. While Schiller holds fast to the traditions and routines of his past—a stubborn and quiet refusal to bend to the capricious winds of change that have passed him by and now leave him isolated—he is not a man of self-pity and certainly does not wish to be viewed by others through such a lens.
Schiller’s adult daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), seems to be the only visitor permitted in his hermetic little world. Dutifully bringing his groceries and checking up on him, Ariel is a source of daily support and love for her father. Ariel, in many ways similar to her father, is struggling through her own crisis of identity as she approaches 40 with little security in terms of love or family. While their relationship is kind and loving, there is a palpable strain of unspoken pain and disconnect between father and daughter. One gets the sense that both have come to terms with the fact that neither will ever be as alive or real as the characters Schiller has created, crafted, detailed and brought to life in his earlier novels.
The life of a writer is one borne, necessarily, of introspection, observation and artfully shaded mimicry. Schiller is a man who has mastered all of these talents and, as a result, his world has become so carefully guarded and interior that he himself resembles a watchman atop an ancient and well-tested fortress. As any amateur engineer or physicist will tell you an impenetrable wall must be thoroughly tested by an equal force of (supposed) unstoppable power.
That relentless force arrives in Schiller’s life in the form of a young graduate student named Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose). Smart and extremely ambitious Heather wants to write her master’s thesis on the significance of Leonard’s early novels and, hopefully, re-introduce and confirm his standing as one of the literary world’s great authors. Schiller is both cautious and more than a bit flattered by this young woman’s unexpected interest in him. It comes as little surprise that the relationship that develops between the two straddles a tenuous line between scholarly admiration and misplaced yearning.
Romances between older men and young women are so common these days rarely are they interesting enough to merit attention. While the film explores the overused metaphor of a May-December romance the bond between Heather and Leonard is as much about misplaced amorous affection as it is about a shared love and appreciation of the written word. What is most striking about these characters is their tendency to misinterpret and over-read both the text of their lives—their motives, ambitions, desires, etc.—and each other.
Adapting Brian Morton’s critically noted novel, Starting Out in the Evening is a formidable task for it is, primarily, a story of carefully detailed and refined observations that rely more on reflection than action. Such subtle complexities of character motivation can be absorbing when readers are cocooned in the intimacy of a book, but translation to the silver screen often proves far more difficult. And, unfortunately, director Andrew Wagner’s cinematic revision of this novel is not wholly successful. The individual pieces—complex characters, motivation, theme, etc.—are all there but Wagner is unable to thread these strands into a cohesive storyline.
The strength of the film is squarely placed on the formidable shoulders of its main star, Frank Langella. Without his impressive talent and the quiet, determined force of his performance Starting Out in the Evening would fail altogether. Langella is captivating in the role of Schiller and infuses the character with uncommon depth, subtlety, and grace. His performance is notable for the restraint and modesty he brings to a character that could too easily be lost in his own self-indulgence, reflection and grief.
Starting Out in the Evening is a smart film that is ultimately undone by the director’s preening and self-conscious style. At the end, the movie itself feels like Schiller’s character who has, for years, been struggling to craft in his head, type out, and bring a story to life through his writing. Unfortunately, the film never manages to catch that ‘life’ on screen and the viewer is left staring at the unrealized potential and detritus of characters and storylines undefined. The fact that Starting Out in the Evening is not stronger or more consistent as a film is rather regrettable, considering the force and brilliance of Langella’s exceptional performance.
The DVD release includes the usual and uninspired grab bag of extras. Aside from the theatrical and television trailers, the only other supplement is an audio commentary by director, Andrew Wagner. Much like the film, Wagner’s commentary is long-winded, overly self-conscious, and taxing. His observations and reflections are mostly banal and rarely provide further insight into the film, which results in a commentary that feels more like an exercise in patience than a rewarding bonus.