Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) is a 25-year-old graduate student who has chosen one of her favorite authors, the getting-up-in-years Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), as the subject of her thesis paper. Leonard, who is struggling to complete his latest novelone that he has been working on for ten yearsat first turns Heather's offer down, but cannot deny that he is intrigued by her. She is a serious type, passionate about books and writers and critical analysis, and Leonard is flattered that someone is still interested in his work when he has all but made peace with believing that the world has forgotten about him. He finally agrees to meet with her, and when Heather asks him his method on formulating stories, Leonard replies that he starts by taking a character and waiting for them to do something interesting. The book's plot, as it were, evolves out of this.
Leonard could have just as well been referring to "Starting Out in the Evening," an acutely-observed drama that places an A-to-Z plot in the back-seat and concentrates on the fascinating characters, instead. From these flawed and ultimately cherished human creations, indeed, arrives a narrative, but writer-director Andrew Wagner and co-writer Fred Parnes are wise enough to understand that what happens in the film is not as important as how it happens, and why. The picture provides few easy answerswhat in life is easy, after all?and that is how it should be. To say that "Starting Out in the Evening" is a May-December love story is to suggest that it isn't as complicated as it is; a love grows between Leonard and Heather, but it isn't physical in the ways expected, and what each party finds in their unconventional relationship speaks more about the specific place they are in their livestheir own wants, imaginings, weaknesses and hang-upsthan in the relationship itself.
More than that, though, the movie is about writingthe need to do it, the unfairly lofty expectations placed upon those that do, the sacrifices involved in putting word to paper, the assumptions made by the reader about the writer's life based on their work, and the impact it can have in the most unexpected of places. As such, "Starting Out in the Evening" is inspiring and enthralling, and will be of particular interest to those viewers who write themselves. Frank Langella (2006's "Superman Returns
"), in quite possibly the performance of his career, is remarkable as Leonard Schiller, a man well aware of his deteriorating health and the unfinished manuscript he has forever been working on. In only a few words, Langella's work is courageous, sympathetic, tough, resolute and sometimes painfully vulnerable.
Leonard's bond with Heather is far from spelled outdoes he grow to care for her because of the attention she gives him and the high pedestal she seems to place him on, because she challenges him when few others still do, or because he sees her as his last chance at living while his own runs out? Likewise, does Heather show a lingering interest in him because of his work, because of who he is as a person, because she has been missing a father-figure type in her life, or because she simply wants to unlock the mysteries behind what she sees as an altered, less carefree style in his later novels to benefit her own thesis? When Leonard ultimately makes an authoritative pass at Heather, the outcome is surprising yet authentic, and the film refuses to let either of them off the hook easily in regard to the actions they have taken past and present.
As the scholarly Heather, Lauren Ambrose (so wonderful on HBO's dearly departed "Six Feet Under") plays her character as an ambitious young woman who isn't as mature as she would like to think and pretends too often that she has everything figured out. Ambrose's performance, like Langella's, is beautifully layered and nakedly sensitive. Rounding out the trio of top-notch leading actors is the invaluable Lili Taylor (2003's "Casa de los Babys
"), as Leonard's steadfast daughter, Arielle, a 40-year-old exercise instructor who has stuck by her father even after years of being placed second behind his work. Arielle's conflict, as she picks back up with ex-boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester) despite their adverse stances on having children, runs in a zigzag with Leonard's, frequently overlapping and eventually coming together in a poignant sequence where a selfless act signals a key turning point for Casey's relationships with both Arielle and Leonard. Taylor is so imminently likable as Arielle that the viewer cannot help but only wish the best for her.
"Starting Out in the Evening" is a wise, low-key drama where the characters' humane, accurately written interactions take precedence over all else. As their struggles to heal amidst old wounds and regain confidence in their work as in their lives plays out, the viewer is glued to the screen, immersed in finding out how everything will resolve (or, in at least one case, not resolve) itself. An extra scene for Heather at the end would have been appreciatedher character is the only one that doesn't receive the closure she deservedbut this is, first and foremost, Leonard's (and the exquisite Frank Langella's) film. As the clicking sounds of the typewriter segue into the end credits, it is suggested that Leonard, no matter how long he still has on this earth, has found the writing material he has waited for his entire life. That's what's important.