Volume 20, Number 31 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 14 - 20, 2007

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Annabel Clark

In “Starting out in the Evening,” Frank Langella gets the kind of complex role films rarely offer him.

Portrait of the author as a distant man

Starting out in the Evening
Written and directed by Andrew Wagner
Now at The IFC Center
323 Sixth Avenue at Waverly

By Leonard Quart

All of a sudden a couple of literate, small, independent American films have appeared that are driven by characters rather than by action or special effects. Andrew Wagner’s “Starting out in the Evening” (based on Brian Morton’s delicate novel) was shot in 18 days, on high-definition video, and is one striking example of this kind of film.

Its prime figure is Leonard Schiller (veteran New York theater actor Frank Langella), a very civilized, 70-year-old, out-of-print, though once moderately successful Upper West Side novelist. Donning a jacket and tie, Schiller works diligently in his study on his fifth novel. He has been working on it for a decade, but its completion has eluded him. Schiller lives a somewhat reclusive life — his only seeming close contact is his loving, emotionally open, but not so malleable daughter Ariel (indie stalwart and “Six Feet Under” star Lili Taylor). They have very solid, caring relationship, but he is disappointed that she is still at loose ends — wanting a child from a sweet-natured man who is opposed to having children, and at 39 not quite settled in a career.

Schiller’s protective carapace, however, is suddenly penetrated by a young, aggressive, ambitious, and bookish graduate student, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose, also of “Six Feet Under” fame), who is writing a master’s thesis on his work. Heather wants to mine the details of his personal life to aid her research, and she’s arrogant enough to believe that her thesis will spark a rediscovery of his work.

The relationship between Schiller and Heather is the central focus of the film. Heather is flirtatious, smart, and calculating. She succeeds in awakening in this solitary, remote man, who at first holds back emotionally, despite a need for artistic recognition and romance.

Wagner skillfully avoids simplifying their relationship. Heather desires success — there is a nicely observed scene where she hungrily makes a beeline for a Village Voice editor at a party, in order to pick up future assignments by connecting with her. And there is her immature callousness when she seductively plays with Schiller’s long dormant passions. But she genuinely cares about literature (her conversation with Schiller about art and commerce, and the nature of creativity may not be scintillating, but it’s consistently intelligent). And she has real feeling and respect for Schiller. However, Heather’s earnestness does not prevent her from being insensitive to what she has set in motion in him, sacrificing compassion for ambition, and narcissistic acting out.

All the film’s performances are multi-dimensional — no character can be reduced to a few adjectives. In Schiller, Langella has the type of complex role that films have rarely offered him, where he’s often been cast as a villain. Here he plays one of those of New York intellectuals who may never have achieved the celebrity of Susan Sontag or Hannah Arendt, but was part of the same universe. Schiller’s passion for the written word invokes a time when the Partisan Review was still publishing, Commentary was a liberal magazine, and books had more intellectual currency than film. Langella in every pause and look captures the dignity, modesty, and emotional constraint of the man. And one can profoundly feel his gradually thawing out before the wiles and youth of Heather.

“Starting Out in the Evening” is a modest film that I find more emotionally riveting and subtle than most of the more hyped and cinematically ambitious new releases.

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