“Are you a burglar?” Startled to discover a graduate student snooping in her father’s study, Ariel (Lili Taylor) makes a decidedly weak joke to make a point. Her father, New York-based novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), has been working on his latest tome for some 10 years, and Ariel, a hardworking Pilates instructor has grown fiercely protective of him. Quick on her feet, Heather (Lauren Ambrose) jokes back (“Not professionally”), prompting Ariel’s dismissal just before she turns her back on the girl to greet her father: “Well, it’s good to have a hobby.”
It’s the start of Starting Out in the Evening, and Heather is all long red hair and self-conscious poses. And she has indeed stolen something, a snapshot of the jaunty young Schiller, hair sexily tousled and gaze slightly diverted. It’s an emblem of the Schiller Heather admires, author of two early novels (all his work is now out of print), in which the characters are “free,” or, as she puts it, “allowed to reject things.” She’s writing her MA thesis (at Brown) on Schiller, recalling that previous critics have resurrected careers for other novelists. At the same time, she’s wrestling with her own aversion to the later work, which she calls less “personal.”
Schiller continues to write even though his new book is unlikely to find a publisher (when Heather the drama queen demands an explanation, he offers precisely the sort of meaningless, deeply resonant phrase she appreciates, saying he’s immersed in “the madness of art”). He also resists the interviews, insisting he is deep into the routine of writing, a point made by the camera’s slow pull out from his desk, where he types on a manual, “looking for the keys,” as he puts it, eyes lowered and expression grim. Still, he agrees. Heather is persistent, flirtatious, and faux precocious. Leaning forward on Schiller’s sofa, notebook balanced on her knee, she starts analyzing the man as text. Noticing that he’s referred several times to feeling old, she muses, “I can’t help but wonder if you’re using your age to mask a deeper conflict.”
Heather may or may not believe herself in love with the young Schiller, the one in her mind, the one who wrote independent-minded, even reckless young women characters, women she imagines as herself. “I want to be bold,” she declares, her face flushed. “I want to be like Joan Didion, Joni Mitchell, Joan of Arc.” Schiller smiles placidly, recognizing her fervor as well as his own distance from it. In truth, the movie suggests, Heather is more in love with herself, the young woman who sought and found “freedom” in someone else’s imagination. She resists Schiller’s last book, The Lost City, when he “did attempt to work on a larger social canvas,” believing that this indicates his loss of passion. She reads it exactly opposite of Casey (Adrian Lester), Ariel’s ex of five years ago now reappeared, who sees the first novels as immature, “soft and sentimental.” Thus the movie sets up two outsiders and romantic objects — Heather and Casey — as different readers, reflecting different stages, different capacities for empathy and generosity.
It’s an unusual, vaguely intellectual premise for a film, lacing emotional ambitions and betrayals through a literary framework. This even though the literature — the actual language or storyline — is never made specific. Embodying themes more than they articulate specific ideas, the characters occasionally strike what might be called “academic” postures, arguing over whether to see The Battle of Algiers or Demy’s musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, analyzing their own behaviors and judging each other.
While Schiller finds brief “excitement” in Heather’s interest, he also rejects her fannish adulation (“You insult me by insinuating that I should write the same book over and over again”). Ariel distrusts her immediately. She doesn’t speak of her mother, who left Schiller before her death in a car accident, and has since remained romanticized in his memory (he sighs, “I wouldn’t be a writer, would I, if I weren’t blinded by optimism?”). And Ariel is facing her own desire to have a child, especially as she’s “nearing 40” and feeling pressured by her “biological clock.” Fully supportive of Casey’s ambitions (he wants to start up a literary magazine, where writers can “argue” and “collaborate”), she also comes to resent his self-absorption (his toast to her on her birthday is all about him, “the way you encourage me to go after my dreams, to take chances with my life”).
Schiller, whose lifelong investment is made visual in his typical “writer’s apartment” (all book shelves and dark wood), asserts the value of cerebral pursuits at the expense of emotional competence: “Freedom isn’t the choice the world encourages,” he pronounces, “You have to wear a suit of armor.” But the movie offers a more conventional assessment, suggesting that in the end, when his body is failing and his will is weary, kindness and warmth are more valuable, interactions at basic, physical levels. (It’s no accident that Ariel is pursuing a certificate in “expressive arts therapy,” that she finds meaning in bodies, taking her father to dance performances even as he brings her along to literary readings.) After he suffers a stroke, Schiller laments, “My body is not my own, it’s time to die.” But, this being a movie in which lessons are learned, his sense of an ending is exactly when he might start again.
This conventional story is complicated by the film’s performances. And while Langella’s much-praised work here is surely haunting, Taylor, who makes Ariel’s struggles to be heard amid the literary chatter feel immediate, is more often surprising.