Frank Langella Gives a Magnificent Performance in a Chamber Piece
If you've ever felt there can be something magical about reading a literary novel, you'll probably want to see Starting Out in the Evening (2007). It's a fascinating character study of a retired academic and all-but-forgotten novelist whose health is failing. He is an unforgettable character, played superbly by Frank Langella in one of the great match-ups of actor and role.
The film tells the story of what happens when the elderly former professor meets a physically attractive graduate student, portrayed by Lauren Ambrose from TV's Six Feet Under. The grad student is a strong-willed young woman who has career aspirations and pursues them aggressively. As you might expect, there is a May-December romance here, but the details are surprisingly interesting.
However, the movie has weaknesses, and one of these is a major story thread about the novelist's 40ish daughter obsessing over her ticking biological clock. The daughter is played by Lili Taylor, a good actress, but the filmmakers failed to find a fresh approach to dealing with this overly familiar situation.
Starting Out in the Evening is a low-keyed, unhurried, small film that takes place in the New York literary world. But one of its strengths is the location shooting that captures the look and feel of Manhattan's Upper West Side.
An Old-School Novelist in the Twilight of His Life
The central character in Starting Out in the Evening is a 70ish widower named Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella). A retired college professor, he is the author of four published novels, all of which are out of print. Now he sits at his typewriter for hours every day, toiling away on a new novel he's been struggling with for 10 years. But since his heart attack, Schiller has been in physical decline, and his health may prevent him from completing the book. Even if he finishes it, he will likely have difficulty finding a publisher.
But one day Schiller is contacted by 25ish Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a Brown University grad student who is doing her master's thesis on him. He is impressed by her recent magazine article on not-all-that-well-known novelist Stanley Elkin, and she sounds credible when she talks about getting her thesis published by the University of Chicago Press. Schiller agrees to submit to a series of interviews by Heather, partly in the hope she can help get him some name recognition and partly because she is smart, good-looking and flirty.Eventually Schiller must take action in his relationship with Heather, deal with his deteriorating health and come to terms with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) and her boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester). But from Schiller's own point of view, he must above all decide where to go with the novel he's been writing for the last 10 years and looks to be his final work. What makes the film worthwhile is that we come to care what happens to Schiller, due largely to the way Frank Langella inhabits the role.
A Director's Commentary That Is Only Sporadically Interesting
The Starting Out in the Evening DVD contains only one bonus material of any consequence, a feature-length audio commentary by director Andrew Wagner. He is well organized, but he spends an inordinate amount of the time simply recapitulating the story in words. He is at his best when he tells us things that we can't deduce from what is on the screen — for example, that the film was shot in 18 days or that he grew up on the Upper West Side. He also makes some informative remarks about working on the screenplay for two years with Fred Parnes, but Wagner hardly talks at all about how the movie differs from the 1998 Brian Morton novel from which it was adapted.
Below I have listed all the details for the DVD containing Starting Out in the Evening.
Release Date: April 22, 2008
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Content, Language and Brief Nudity
Widescreen (16:9), Color
English 5.1 Dolby Digital
English 2.0 Stereo
Audio Commentary by Director Andrew Wagner