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Starting Out in the Evening

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/12/2007

Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is an older writer in the Saul Bellow mold. He lives alone in a tidy Upper West Side apartment, and you get the feeling he's been there for some time; bookshelves greet people when they first enter, and even the bathroom has books next to the medicine cabinet. His wife is long passed, his heart isn't 100 percent, his first books are long out of print--he's a bit of a living anachronism, from a generation when, as one younger critic scoffs, the men "wear suits and go to bed early." For some years he's been working on his next book, even though his old publishing contacts are at new houses these days and regrettably aren't interested in literary fiction; self-help books are what sell. He does maintain a close if stilted relationship with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor, perfect as ever), a former dancer-turned-aerobics and Pilates instructor--"where dancers go when they die," she deadpans--whose biological clock ticks louder and louder with each passing day. Both Leonard and Ariel feel like restless insects trying to escape the viscous amber before it cools and leaves them trapped as unfulfilled museum pieces.

Into their lives comes Heather (a luminous Lauren Ambrose, unburdened by the mannered severity that Six Feet Under foisted upon her), a Brown graduate student who hopes to revive interest in Leonard by writing a scholarly consideration about his work; an at first disinterested but curious Leonard checks out her Stanley Elkin piece in a journal. She wants to interview him about his work and life; he feels his personal life isn't that important to the work, but she persists in pursuing his life's details. She's not all parasite; she just feels that his work encouraged her to become herself when she read him as a Cleveland Heights teenager, and she fell in love with this idea of Schiller she formed in her head. And what develops between them isn't exactly a May-December romance, if only because it feels much more intimate.

Director Andrew Wagner's adaptation of Brian Morton's 1998 novel of the same name romanticizes a memory of garrulous, passionate literary New York that may have existed only in the mind of George Plimpton, but neither book nor movie is blinded by nostalgia. Thanks go to cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian, whose digital-video work gives everything a 1970s Gordon Willis feel, and especially Langella, who once again finds hidden depths, dignities, frailties, and strengths inside a type of older male character too frequently cast aside in movies. Schiller knows enough about life to suspect, from the start, that anything involving Heather isn't going to end well, but Langella lets this tweedy man cautiously open up emotionally, as if an old spigot shut off for too long.

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