2007 // USA // Andrew Wagner // March 8, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Leonard Schiller is the vision one might have of a long-fallow New York novelist. He almost always wears a tie, even when creaking through his book-laden upper West Side apartment. He speaks deliberately and politely. He eats toast several times a day. He sits in front of his old manual typewriter (of course) and tries to work on his fifth novel. He is writing—keys are clacking, pages are accumulating—but he is not making any progress. Starting Out in the Evening is the story of Leonard's struggle to find his voice and understand his desires now that he is in the sunset of his life. It is also about how the people that surround him struggle just as mightily with their own lives. If this film is a bit stale in its generalities, its particulars crackle with life. Starting Out is blessedly free of cynicism where its own subject matter is concerned. This is a film about literature that loves literature, and a film about happiness that cares about its characters' happiness.
Much of the success of Starting Out rests on the broad shoulders of theatrical titan Frank Langella, who has appeared in several memorable character roles in recent films. Langella made his name playing Dracula on Broadway, and although he successfully clawed his way out of that role's typecasting shadow, there is always an undercurrent of virility in his performances, even at age 70. This is not a sagging old bag of bones, but a slab of varnished hardwood, full of knots and whorls. He's just moving a lot slower than he used to. Perhaps that is why, even shrouded in wool sweaters and dustily plodding through his autumn years, Langella's Leonard exudes something that attracts literature graduate student Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose).
Naturally, Heather is impossibly gorgeous, erudite, and witty. Also naturally, she is writing her master's thesis on Leonard. In a more tedious film, the viewer would be asked to sit through Heather's intellectual seduction of Leonard, but Starting Out begins with the pair striking their arrangement. Leonard agrees to several interviews for the thesis, but asks that Heather refrain from authoring a gossip piece on his life. It must be about the work. Heather is so enthusiastic and scary-intelligent that Leonard immediately feels intimidated and bewildered. His false modesty doesn't faze her, and he finds himself self-consciously intrigued at the possibility that her work will re-awaken interest in his four previous novels. And then there is the unfinished fifth novel. Every hour spent in Heather's enticing company is an hour that Leonard is not writing.
Starting Out in the Evening's most significant flaw is the bland predictability of its broad outlines. Of course confused sexual attraction will blossom between a slumbering artist like Leonard and an academic firecracker like Heather. Of course Leonard's health problems, hinted at throughout the film, will become significant to the plot in the third act. I don't know how faithful Starting Out is to Brian Morton's original novel, but the film suffers from these sort of wheezy developments. This doesn't make Starting Out a bad film, just unexceptional where its plot is concerned.
Fortunately, the succulent little details—the bold choices that blossom in one scene after another—transform Starting Out into a genuinely good film. Who exactly to credit for these decisions is ambiguous. It's likely that the actors, director Andrew Wagner, writers Wagner and Fred Parnes, and production designer Carol Strober should all share some recognition. In my unkind moments, I'm inclined to regard the plot of Starting Out as truly forgettable, but the little things stick with me so strongly it's impossible to apply this descriptor to the film as a whole. There are moments of human beauty in this film that made the breath catch in my throat. When Leonard covers Heather's eyes with a hand because he cannot bear to look at the naked intellectual and sexual longing there, or when Heather anoints Leonard's forehead with honey in a spontaneous act of affection, it's hard to quibble over the believability of their attraction.
Almost all of the film's touching moments are between Leonard and Heather. There is an extensive secondary plot about Leonard's daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) and her return to her ex-lover Casey (Adrian Lester) that weaves through Leonard's story. Ariel and Casey are complicated people, likable enough but self-centered and flawed. They are also much less fascinating than Leonard and Heather. Consequently, Warner never quite finds his footing when he attempts use the two relationships to reflect and refract one another.
One of the central pleasures to Starting Out in the Evening is how earnest—even naïve—it is about the mystery of art and its vital function in some people's lives. This is a film that quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald without a trace of sarcasm or contempt. When Leonard raises subtle doubts about Heather's intentions, she confesses in a tearful rush how one of his novels literally changed the course of her life. The characters in Starting Out love literature, as do the filmmakers. They understand how both consuming it and creating it can be a path to a sublime, mysterious sort of happiness.
This unabashed intellectual heat freshens Starting Out in the Evening's staleness, as do Langella's towering performance and the film's resolve to ferret splendid humanity from a trite story. In that, it is an unexpected success. This is a film for anyone who can appreciate the short distance between the bliss of academic delight and the bliss of new love. It's also a film for anyone who has contemplated how to start over, with a career, a relationship, or a life. And who hasn't done that?