For Judge Brendan Babish the start of a perfect evening only requires a hot bath, a pint of Chunky Monkey, and a stack of Grishams.
"Freedom isn't the choice the world encourages. You have to wear a suit of armor to defend it."
Writer/director Andrew Wagner follows up his pseudo-documentary The Talent Given Us (a family road trip movie starring his real family members) with Starting Out in the Evening, a straightforward narrative film that has not only been cast with professional actors, but features one of the best (and most underrated) of his generation, Frank Langella.
Facts of the Case
Leonard Schiller (Langella, Unscripted) is a literary author at the end of his career with a total output of four out-of-print novels and a fifth nearing completion. Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under) is a graduate student at Brown University who is writing her master's thesis on Schiller. She visits him in his New York City apartment to learn more about the inspiration for his works. While Heather discovers some secrets Leonard never wanted revealed, the two develop an emotional—and perhaps sensual—connection.
Schiller's daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor, Dogfight), is suspicious of Heather, but has issues of her own. She is nearing forty, single, and desperate for a child. She is in a relationship with Casey (Adrian Lester, Primary Colors), a soft-spoken intellectual who has great affection for Ariel, but has no interest in starting a family with her.
Starting Out in the Evening is highbrow entertainment. I hate to say that. I don't want to limit the film's audience, but this is a film populated by highly educated characters who speak eloquently and never act in a way that betrays their thoughtful continence. This is extraordinarily rare in cinema (or television or the theater); so much of drama seems propelled by people doing stupid things. In Starting Out in the Evening the drama is created by intelligent people who find themselves in extremely difficult situations. There is little sensationalistic about it (the May-December romance notwithstanding), but it might just (subtly) break your heart.
The anchor of the movie is clearly Langella. Langella may be an amorphous character actor to many moviegoers, but when he gets a chance to really emote (as in HBO's underrated Unscripted), he is as good as any actor working today. Leonard Schiller is a painfully restrained man; Langella is somehow able to convey decades of quiet frustration with the simple act of removing his glasses or in buttering a piece of bread. When Schiller's passions do bubble to the surface, Langella uncoils and explodes with a power and precision demonstrating complete control of the character. This is a perfect performance; like a great novel, it's full of subtleties that can only be discovered through repeat viewings.
Of course, Ambrose has difficulty matching Langella's intensity, though she does hold her own. The relationship between Leonard and Heather is the heart of the movie; while Heather is hardly an intellectual challenge to Leonard, her youth and sensuality make her a worthy foil—and an intriguing companion. To both actors' credit, Ambrose and Langella create a lot of intriguing subtext in these highfalutin' conversations. As a result, discussions about character development become as charged and erotic as anything you'll find on Cinemax after midnight.
Unfortunately, the movie's B-story, Ariel and her ticking biological clock, is neither as compelling as nor compatible with Leonard and Heather's relationship. This storyline, centering on the angst related to approaching middle age, seems to belong in a different movie. Additionally, Ariel and Casey somehow manage to be even more pretentious than Leonard and Heather. While I can forgive it in the film's two leads, it would have been welcome to have at least one character who prefers contemporary pop culture over French cinema of the 1960s.
Overall, Starting Out in the Evening is an intelligent, moving story about creativity, aging, and relationships that never resorts to sentimentality or bland platitudes. To a certain extent, the film's lack of clear interpretations might frustrate some viewers, but for me it exemplifies a well-constructed story that resembles the convoluted nature of life like few contemporary films. It is highly recommended.
Most of the action in Starting Out in the Evening takes place inside musty New York City apartments, and most of the sound consists of intimate conversation between two people. The picture is sharp and the sound is clear, but this is not a movie that takes advantage of high-definition or surround sound.
The only substantial extra is a commentary track provided by writer/director Andrew Wagner. The track might be helpful for those eager to dissect the motivations of the characters. For those who enjoy teasing these things out for themselves, the track is unnecessary.
Starting Out in the Evening is an intelligent drama that should reward close viewings as well as repeated viewings. Frank Langella's performance, in particular, deserves studying, as he has imbued Leonard Schiller with a sorrow, passion, and intelligence rarely portrayed so eloquently on film.
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