Based on the novel by Brian Morton, Starting Out in the Evening is a great little character piece about an aging writer who becomes the focal point of a spirited, slightly troubled student bent on using his triumphs and creative shortcomings as her thesis anchor point, although her involvement with her subject ultimately pushes everyone to make the decisions each, to some extent, has been avoiding after lengthy periods of inertia and/or morose self-absorption.
Author Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is hardwired into a regular routine, resulting in several critically derided and forgotten works, and the completion of a new book neither he nor his critics seem to anticipate; and regular visits by daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) ensure she too sees herself as nothing more than caregiver to her ailing father – an excuse that ensures she’ll never aspire to any greatness herself.
Student Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), however, suffers from serious idol worship, and it’s clear from her first meeting with Schiller that she’s going to have tremendous difficulty in maintaining a focus on a thesis that’s propelled by ‘under thirty syndrome’ – the manic desire to accomplish Greatness Fast and Furious before hitting the doom-laden age of thirty.
All of this is set up during the first half hour, and director/co-writer Andrew Wagner and co-writer Fred Parnes are very careful in the way they direct the story towards its appropriate ending and steer performances and characterizations far from situations and indulgences that easily could’ve been maudlin and alienating.
Heather, for example, could easily have been portrayed as a more ominous character – part of that impression comes from Lauren Ambrose’ eerie, dilated eyes – but by keeping her humanely flawed she stays compelling, and our alliances with the film’s characters are frequently challenged by how well or ineptly they handle their own personal crises.
The denouement with Schiller is perhaps a bit predictable, but the final scene, focusing on one character in a simple shot, ensures the all the characters have learned something about one another; whether or not they’re successful in their efforts to transcend their dilemmas isn’t important, because it’s their willingness to try that of value.
Frank Langella’s extremely compelling as the overlooked author, and Ambrose’s unsettling, delphish expressions have one guessing for a while whether she’ll cross the line of impropriety, and insert herself into Schiller’s life and family, stirring up trouble to create the conclusion to the thesis that early on is in danger of being derailed. Taylor gives Schiller’s daughter the right level of blindsiding behaviour and geniality, and Adrian Lester (TV’s Hustle) manages to mask his Brit accent and ensure Ariel’s boyfriend Casey isn’t a completely selfish arse.
Also of note is the film’s beautiful production design, lovely digital cinematography by Harlan Bosmajian, and a really beautiful theme and score variations by composer Adam Gorgoni.
The only disappointment in Maple’s DVD is the director’s commentary track, where Wagner pretty much describes in enthusiastic, prosaic style everything we’re seeing and absorbing ourselves about the characters and plot. Like William Friedkin’s Bug (2007), it’s a non-commentary, because rather than impart any real details on the production, or adapting the novel for film, filing in New York City, or more details about the cast and crew, Wagner literally tells us what’s going onscreen.
Banal track aside, Starting Out in the Evening is a measured, engrossing tale that deserves a peek; if not for the story, than for Langella’s fine performance, and Gorgoni’s compassionate score.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan