Director Andrew Wagner draws topnotch work from a pro cast in “Starting Out in the Evening,” a wise, carefully observed chamber drama about an elderly novelist whose daily routine is interrupted by the arrival of a young grad student with more than academics on her mind. While its New York lit-world setting, focus on aging and preference for intelligent dialogue over kinetic action will do little to create a feeding frenzy among potential distribs, this small yet deeply resonant pic should be embraced by upscale arthouse auds and spark awards talk for star Frank Langella.
A contemporary of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, Leonard Schiller (Langella) hasn’t been the same man since his wife died, and even less so since he suffered a heart attack. His four novels are out of print, and his fifth has been sitting in his typewriter for more than a decade.
One day, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) shows up wanting to interview Schiller for her master’s thesis and, not the sort to take “no” for an answer, tells Schiller’s daughter, Ariel (an excellent Lili Taylor), that she plans to “reintroduce your father’s work to the world.” And if, at first, Heather seems a touch naive — the scenes of her caressing Schiller’s writing desk as though it were the shroud of Turin are a bit much — Ambrose soon shows us the naked ambition lurking behind her character’s wide, sparkling eyes.
Heather’s passion for Schiller’s words is genuine, and as she asks the old man about his life and work, he warms to her in measures that are as unhurried as the sun creeping towards the horizon. First, there is merely a clasping of hands. Later, in a scene that Langella plays with a sublime mixture of bafflement and desire, she teasingly spreads a dollop of honey across his forehead. Finally, in a moment of exquisite tenderness and carefully controlled eros just prior to a strategically placed fade out, they lie down together fully clothed while he moves his hands along the length of her body, seeming to touch her without ever making contact.
Like “Venus” (to which it will surely invite comparisons), “Starting Out in the Evening” skillfully navigates the terrain of a relationship pitched somewhere between master-pupil and May-December. But Wagner’s pic, which was adapted by the director and Fred Parnes from Brian Morton’s novel, is a knowing portrait of three complex individuals of very different ages, all of whom feel the breath of Father Time at their necks. For Schiller, there is the challenge of finishing his novel against the deadline of his own mortality. For the 40-year-old Ariel, there’s the desire to have a child before her biological clock ticks its last fitful beats. And for Heather, there’s the dilemma of wanting to write serious literary criticism in a cultural climate where seriousness is ever less appreciated.
Wagner, who made stars out of his parents and siblings in his 2005 Sundance entry “The Talent Given Us,” keeps those competing storylines in a delicate balance, and the result is a sophomore film of unusual maturity and confidence — the work of a filmmaker with a sure grasp of his characters and an appreciation for the untidiness of lives that fall short of their bearers’ expectations. And if, on their surfaces, Wagner’s two films to date bear little in common, upon closer inspection they are both tough-minded studies in the complex relationships between parents and children, and the ways in which our bodies betray us as we age.
In a career-crowning performance, Langella plays Schiller with utter vulnerability and lack of vanity — the former seducer whose stage Dracula made women swoon here invests himself fully in the part of a man weakened by illness and regret. At times, he appears to be acting only with his eyes, the rest of his body as unbending as a petrified oak; yet he commands our deepest attention from first frame to last.
Made on location in New York City on a tight 18-day schedule, pic sports impressively high production values, notably d.p. Harlan Bosmajian’s elegant soft lighting schemes and production designer Carol Strober’s warm, lived-in interiors.