Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella, 1979's "Dracula," "Good Night, and Good Luck") was a revered intellectual novelist keeping company with the likes of Saul Bellow, but his work is out of print and his recognition factor has ebbed. Having survived extensive surgery, Schiller is intent on finishing a new novel, with only visits from his unrooted 39-year-old daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor, HBO's "Six Feet Under," "The Notorious Bettie Page") to distract him. Until, that is, Brown University Masters candidate Heather Wolfe (as in sheep's clothing?) (Lauren Ambrose, HBO's "Six Feet Under," "Swimming") convinces him to be the subject of her these as he is "Starting Out in the Evening."
Cowriter (with Fred Parnes)/director Andrew Wagner, who utilized his own NYC family and their creative processes in the unique debut "The Talent Given Us," intimately adapts Brian Morton's novel with this three generational character study. Frank Langella gives a quietly intense performance as a dignified senior shaken out of his mindset while Ambrose keeps us guessing at just what she is up to. The usually wonderful Taylor seems miscast as a self-described 'action person (a dancer turned yoga instructor),'as intelligence has long been her forte, but she grows into the role in the film's second half when she is partnered with Adrian Lester ("Primary Colors," HBO's "As You Like It") as the ex she couldn't shake.
At first Schiller rejects Heather's proposal, after allowing her into his hallowed writing area (she steals a photograph of the young Leonard - 'Are you a thief?' asks a genial Ariel when she finds her there). But after surreptitiously reading the Illuminati article at a bookstore and getting no interest from a publishing agent at a book party, Leonard changes his mind. Heather turns out to be everything he wished Ariel was - focused and intellectual - and perhaps everything his deceased wife was - sexy and enigmatic. Ariel is shocked by the relationship and begins to look for a father for her baby in earnest just as she runs into the love of her life, Casey (Lester), the guy she split with when he refused to support a pregnancy and the guy her father most disapproved.
The film is a series of conversations, usually between two characters and it is the probing ones between Leonard and Heather that examine the creative process. 'Your books set me free,' the admiring Heather tells the professor, describing how his the strong female characters of his first two novels helped her decide to leave a boyfriend for an education. Langella makes us feel the pricks of her probing, flinching when she asks a question he deems inappropriate, and the sexual tension between them is evident in body language (a seated Heather takes off her jacket and Schiller responds by clasping his hands in front of his crotch). In another vibrant scene, Heather anoints Leonard with honey - he then runs his aging hand just within reach of the length of her body.
Meanwhile Ariel (a Hebrew name meaning Jerusalem or Lioness of God) finds Casey at Nicks, the local diner that was their hangout and temporarily loses sight of her quest when she falls in love all over again. At her fortieth birthday, Casey toasts her for encouraging him even when it meant going against her own dreams and Leonard bristles, but later, when Casey accompanies Leonard to a medical appointment, he begins to see more of what his daughter sees in the man. And then there is Heather, who, when she is not with Leonard is in discussion with Sandra Bennett (Jessica Hecht, "Dan in Real Life") about the direction her thesis is taking her. Bennet advises that 'sometimes writing with conviction means being a bastard.' Does this harbinger the end of the May December relationship? The results are surprising, as all these characters' status in the crisscrossing relationships can be monitored by who has a key to whose apartment.
"Starting Out in the Evening" is obviously indie, most of the action taking place in one of two apartments or the city's streets, and while the DV cinematography of Harlan Bosmajian ("The Great New Wonderful," "Ira and Abby") can be a little claustrophobic, Ambrose is captured with an ethereal glow that adds to her character's mystery. Original Music by Adam Gorgoni ("The Dead Girl") is low key but evocative of place. Wagner has made an adult drama that gives Langella a gem of a part.
Robin gives "Starting Out in the Evening" a B-.
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