Starting Out in the Evening

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PARK CITY -- At a time when directors are falling over each other to scramble the medium's form, it is reassuring and invigorating to see a film like "Starting Out in the Evening" that succeeds so beautifully because of a compelling story, great acting, intelligent writing and sensitive direction. Andrew Wagner's portrait of an aging writer and his adrift daughter cuts across generational lines, capped by an astounding performance by Frank Langella. This is a picture with real boxoffice potential for a selective audience.

The film opens with Leonard Schiller (Langella) staring at the blank page, hands on his chin. He is a once-acclaimed novelist, now out-of-print, who has been working on his latest book for ten years. He is from the generation of '50s New York intellectuals who are faithful to a code of behavior. His life is structured and joyless, but he is not unkind; he has a loving relation with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor).

Schiller's orderly life is shattered by the arrival of the brash and beautiful graduate student Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) who is writing her Master's thesis on him. Not wanting to disrupt his writing routine, he at first declines to cooperate, but changes his mind and gradually opens up to her.

Watching Langella struggle with the character's resistance is to observe a pro at work. He totally inhabits the character with his voice, gestures and erect posture. And Ambrose almost keeps pace with him. Her character is a piece of work -- smart but also cunning (hence her name, Wolfe) and ambitious. Her intimacy with Schiller is at once a schoolgirl crush, an admiring fan and an opportunistic writer.

She goads Schiller by telling him that he's "using his age to mask a deeper conflict," and proceeds to pick at the scabs of his life, including the long-ago death of his wife. Her candor and optimism is both refreshing and frightening to a man who is not accustomed to expressing his feelings and wears a tie to breakfast. In a quiet but startling moment near the end of the film, he slaps Heather lightly, and in that gesture one can read all of his conflicting feelings.

At the same time Heather is invading Leonard's world, Ariel is struggling with her own issues. Close to 40 and desperate to have a child, she is nonetheless deeply in love with a man (Adrian Lester) who doesn't want to have children. Having chosen someone who lives in his head much like her father, she must now figure out her own life. An ex-dancer-turned-Pilates-teacher, she is a touching and believable character, thanks to the warmth and vitality Taylor brings to the role. It's a terrific performance in a film filled with them.

"Starting Out in the Evening" could easily have tipped over into the maudlin and sentimental were it not for Wagner's precise direction and his succinct script, written with Fred Parnes (based on a novel by Brian Morton). Beautifully shot on locations in New York in an unbelievable 18 days by Harlan Bosmajian, the film manages to keep its balance, aided by a lovely and restrained score by Adam Gorgoni.

In the end, Schiller, his health deteriorating, is faced with the same blank page. Confronting the madness of art and the cruelty of old age, he must decide to start out again in the evening. Like a Beckett character, he can't go on, he goes on.

STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING
Cinetic Media, InDigEnt
Credits:
Director: Andrew Wagner
Writers: Fred Parnes, Andrew Wagner
Producers: Nancy Israel, Fred Parnes, Gary Winick, Jake Abraham
Executive Producers: John Sloss, Gregory Moyer, Douglas Harmon, Allen Myerson
Director of Cinematography: Harlan Bosmajian
Production Designer: Carol Strober
Music: Adam Gorgoni
Costume Designer: Claudia Brown
Editor: Gena Bleier
Cast:
Leonard Schiller: Frank Langella
Ariel Schiller: Lili Taylor
Heather Wolfe: Lauren Ambrose
Casey Davis: Adrian Lester
Victor: Michael Cumpsty
Running time: 105 minutes
No MPAA rating
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