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Starting Out in the Evening

As a layered, emotional look at ambition, aging, and the ramifications of success, Starting Out in the Evening is a thoughtful film that will especially appeal to anyone who has ever thought they might one day write the Great American Novel.


Dr. Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is a novelist and retired college professor, whose body of work includes a novel many critics considered a great classic when published decades ago. But that was then, this is now, as Schiller struggles to finish his latest novel, one that has so far taken him 10 years to write. Into his life comes Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a brash college student who is writing her thesis on Schiller and his work. She's a pretty, beguiling thing, filled with ambition and drive; and those are exactly the things that Schiller has somehow lost along the way. As the two of them form an uneasy relationship, with Schiller's daughter (Lili Taylor) as a third part of this emotionally repressed triangle, the story unfolds with twists and turns. The finale reminds us that no matter how old we are, if we want to do something artistic, then even Starting Out in the Evening of our lives is better than never getting going at all.


Langella's stellar performance is at the heart of this quietly affecting film. He plays Schiller as an insulated, emotionally bereft artist, whose life spark died the moment he lost his wife (decades before) in a car crash. He's never had the passion to write to the level he did before she died; nor has he had passion for much of anything else, including his daughter, until Heather shows up at his door and insists he begin to feel life again. Ambrose (of Six Feet Under fame) is perfectly cast as the young woman who hero-worships this much-older man, and who brings him back into a passion for living by her mere presence. Their story is real and affecting, as is the subplot of Schiller's daughter, whose life is passing her by much as her father's. By the time the film ends, both father and daughter have had life-altering experiences due to the catalyst created by this stranger in their midst--and both are the better for it.


With Starting Out in the Evening, director Andrew Wagner has fashioned a subtle, quiet vision of Brian Morton's award-winning novel of the same name. He certainly seems to understand the inherent pressure of having a youthful success in the arts. What does one do next, after giving the world a masterpiece while still in an early part of one's life? For his main character, that struggle and question have become overwhelming, with the result being his shutting down to any of life's more joyous or emotional experiences. There's a lot going on under the surface of this film, a directing technique Wagner may have absorbed from his famous uncle, Mark Rydell, who directed On Golden Pond, a picture with some similar themes. The downside to Wagner's technique is in his pacing, for there are moments where the movie moves so slowly, it is hard not to be bored. But by the final frames, there is an emotional resonance to the story that cannot be ignored, especially if the viewer is someone who aspires to excel in any of the world's creative disciplines. This makes Starting Out in the Evening a worthwhile experience for nascent writers, artists, musicians, etc. And a warning as well: to pace yourself for the duration of your life, rather than explode on the scene with nothing left to give once an impression has been made.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.