Starting Out in the Evening
by Del Harvey
This intelligent and perceptive drama is a breath of fresh air from all the CGI-laden fantasies hitting your retinas this season.
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New York’s upper west side is an area known as something of an intellectual haven, and that is where retired author and professor emeritus Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) now lives a quiet life of waking up day after day to stare at his typewriter and urge the words to come. But they never do, anymore. And even though he is aware of this, what else is there for him to do? So he clings to his stringent regimen, telling his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) not to disturb him during his writing hours. And so life moves along, day after day, interrupted by the occasional poetry reading or dance performance, but otherwise pretty much the same thing, every day.
Until an ebullient young literary scholar, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), shows up at Leonard’s door, asking to interview him for her thesis paper. She explains that her piece on the writer Stanley Elkin has just been accepted by an academic literary journal. Leonard, a very private, very formal man, is obviously charmed by this beautiful young woman and most especially by her intense gushing over his every movement and word. And so he does something we doubt he has rarely ever done; he allows her the opportunity to interview him. After all, his works are all out of print, he no longer teaches, and he remains hidden away in his writing office for days on end. With such a lively and bright glimpse of the outside world showing up at his door and praising him, how could he possible refuse?
And so begins a slow cat and mouse between the reclusive author and his adoring young admirer. She works slowly, crawling under his skin. And Leonard allows her this freedom, in spite of his meager and feeble attempts and rebuke. When she smears honey on his face in what she intends as an erotic moment, Leonard’s expression tells us of his despair at being too old to do anything to satisfy her need as well as being far too serious to give in to such silliness. We get the impression that he may have rarely given in to such frivolities.
And his vibrant daughter, closing in on 40 and desperate to have a child of her own, confirms this. Her mother, Leonard’s wife, died some years ago, and they have been taking care of each other, father and daughter, from a distance, ever since. They share a deep love, but a flawed one, and it has scarred Ariel in ways she is not truly aware.
These are the boundaries within which writer/director Andrew Wagner has framed this adaptation of Brian Morton’s novel of the same name. Mr. Wagner has done an admirable job in crafting a dramatic piece which may be even stronger than the original material, thanks to the honesty and depth of the story as presented by a cast which performs at their peak.
The beauty of this story lies in its resonance to the real; to those very mundane but ever so important little things in life; like love, or believing in oneself, or knowing one’s limitations. And the cast is superb in sharing these emotions starkly and luminously on screen. Starting Out in the Evening is a masterwork, and worth seeking out this holiday season.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and he teaches film in Chicago.
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