Starting out in the Evening
United States, 2007
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Adrian Lester
Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner, based on the novel by Brian Morton
Starting out in the Evening is as much a meditation on the craft of writing as it is a May/December romance. It's a gentle, unhurried drama about how people can connect with each other through conversation, nonverbal gestures, and writing. The pace is slow but the characters have enough depth and texture to keep the film from becoming boring. We understand these people and want to know what happens next. If there's a downside, it's that the ending is perfunctory and in some ways unsatisfying. It can be a problem when a director thinks he has provided closure when he hasn't, and that's what occurs here. There's a critical scene late in the movie that's awkward and unanchored and, while it resolves a major plot thread, it leaves a bad aftertaste.
Frank Langella, who started out his career as a sex symbol (remember Dracula?) then graduated to portraying heavies (both figuratively and literally - he's a big man), plays against type and, in doing so, gives one of the most impressive low-key performances of his career. Here, he's Leonard Schiller, a New York author whose four published novels are out of print. Leonard is not a well man and, before he dies, he wants to finish the opus he has been struggling with for the past ten years. Unfortunately, even if he completes it, it may not be publishable. A friend explains to him that the industry has changed. No one wants "literary" novels any more. Enter Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a motivated 25-year-old graduate student who want to write her thesis about Leonard. He's her favorite author and she wants the world to "rediscover" him. Initially, Leonard is reluctant to collaborate with her - he values his privacy. Eventually, however, Heather's "never say never" attitude and subtle sexual manipulation wear down his objections and he agrees. As Leonard opens up, the balance of power shifts to Heather. And, while she genuinely loves his books and respects him, she is an ambitious young woman.
Leonard's only daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), doesn't trust Heather, but she has enough problems in her own life to keep her from interfering too much in her father's. She's involved with Casey (Adrian Lester), her perfect match in every way except one. She desperately wants children and he is opposed to them. They broke up several years ago when an unplanned pregnancy led Ariel to have an abortion. Now, they have reached an impasse: they love each other but neither is willing to bend on the offspring issue.
Starting out in the Evening doesn't just pay lip service to the creative process, it spends some time with it. We are led to understand where Leonard's inspirations come from, why he writes when no one may read what he produces, why he has ethical qualms about commercialization, and how much of his own life has made it into his books. These are the things about him that fascinate Heather. She is not infatuated with Leonard as he is now. She is fascinated by the man who wrote her favorite book, the dashing young author whose picture she treasures. His view of her is not strictly paternal but neither is it that of a lover. The film is more circumspect than Venus in depicting the relationship between a young woman and a much older man but it is no less frank. This is not a Harlequin Romance, nor does it pretend to be.
The ending, as I mentioned, is a source of vague disappointment. It almost feels as if there's a scene or two missing. Also, while director Wagner generally does a good job balancing the Leonard/Heather and Ariel/Casey interactions, the back-and-forth cutting stops late in the film to allow the story to concentrate on one at the expense of the other. It's not a bad way to end things but it leaves the viewer feeling like something is missing. That concern aside, however, this is a well-made, thoughtful motion picture that should find an audience among those who are more interested in character interaction than plot development. Not a lot happens in Starting out in the Evening, but what occurs irrevocably changes the lives of the four principals.