Starting Out in the Evening

Annabel Clark/Roadside Attractions
Andrew Wagner/United States 2007

Starting Out in the Evening is a film where the destination is of the least concern. Even the path to the destination is marginally important. True, everyone hopes for a good story when attending a film. Some enjoy films with a surprise or twist ending. Starting Out in the Evening, the sophomore directorial outing of Andrew Wagner, is a character-driven film and the plot evolves only as much as the characters let it. And Wagner’s film is the better for it.

Based on the Brian Morton novel, Starting Out in the Evening stars Frank Langella (Good Night, and Good Luck., Superman Returns) as aging author Leonard Schiller. Leonard finds himself the subject of a master’s thesis conducted by Heather (Lauren Ambrose, most notably of Six Feet Under). Heather has read all four of Leonard’s out-of-print novels and intends to embark of a critical analysis of his body of work. Throughout the film, Heather conducts interviews with Leonard of increasing emotional intensity. Along the way, Heather meets Leonard’s only daughter Ariel, (Lili Taylor, also a Six Feet Under alum) and she carries her own relationship baggage.

Leonard is an icy and distant character, almost predictably so. In almost any film of this sort, it seems the younger character always tries to soften up the older and more reclusive elder. Heather is awestruck upon first meeting Leonard and it becomes apparent that her infatuation extends beyond the literary world and into the physical, real realm. This juxtaposition is the centerpiece of the film – fiction vs. reality. Leonard and Heather have tremendous ability to analyze, interpret, and interrogate literature. The film asks: How well does this ability translate to understanding human beings?

The language of the film is interesting as well. The script, also co-penned by Wagner, constantly addresses linguistics. Leonard, Heather, and even Ariel routinely critique each other’s use of language. Their conversations stand in for vocabulary tests. Words have double meanings and Leonard and Heather are sure to make each other aware of those meanings. It’s as if their speech needs editing just as the written word.

Authors have said they are their own worst critic. This film explores that statement. Who knows more about Schiller’s novels? Who better understands them? This issue goes both ways: Leonard advises Heather on her thesis while Heather critiques his novels. Predictably, Wagner’s film straddles this line.

Starting Out in the Evening is a pleasure. The acting is top notch. Langella is cold, but slowly thawed by Heather’s tough love. Ambrose covered similar ground with her work on Six Feet Under: seeking approval from her elders while striving to be different. The development of Leonard and Heather drives the story. While at times their actions are aggressive and abrasive, the characters are always credible.

© 2007 Charley McLean. All rights reserved.

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