Starting Out in the Evening

The actor Frank Langella is 70 years old and has had a long, illustrious career, mostly in theater. Yet watching him in “Starting Out in the Evening” is like seeing a brilliant new actor give his breakthrough performance. Every small gesture and minute detail adds to the realness of the character, at every turn defying one’s expectations of how a character like this “ought” to be. It is not a flashy performance. The only unusual thing about it is how good it is.

Perhaps fittingly, Langella is playing an elderly novelist in search of his second wind. His name is Leonard Schiller, one of the New York elite writers on the order of John Cheever or Philip Roth, the author of four widely admired but now out-of-print books. He has not published anything in years, and now he’s working on what he figures will be his swan song. The trouble is, he’s been out of the game so long, and the business has changed so much, that he might have trouble finding a publisher.

That is where Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) comes in. She’s a grad student seeking to write her thesis on Leonard’s life and work, and while at first he very graciously declines her offer on the grounds that he is too busy, he soon realizes her thesis might be the added boost of notoriety he needs to get his new novel on the shelves.

And so a relationship commences. The two are separated in age by about 50 years, and Leonard is initially unsettled by her casualness, her coyness, her sometimes brazen flirtations. He usually calls her “Miss Wolfe” despite her insistence that he use her first name, and despite her unwavering use of his. Leonard is not a prude, nor is he prickly or reclusive — defying your expectations of an elderly, no-longer-published author, right? He is simply old and well-mannered.

He’s also highly principled, maybe too much so to function in the modern cutthroat world of publishing. He believes art and commerce are at war, that to write for a popular magazine — full of ads and fluff — is equivalent to selling out. These attitudes in a young writer are usually dismissed as overly idealistic and naive, and you figure the kid will grow out of it. Not so with Leonard, who quietly believes his principles with his whole heart. He may be old-fashioned, but he is not misguided or irrelevant.

Heather finds all of this fascinating (as do I), and her affection for Leonard is revealed to extend beyond mere admiration of his work. She credits him with giving her the courage, as a teenager, to find her freedom and pursue her dreams. His first two novels had strong, determined female characters. His second two, which Heather does not hold in nearly such high esteem, lack such a character. She guesses, correctly, that the shift coincides with the death of Leonard’s wife, whom he deeply loved.

Leonard Schiller has a daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), who is approaching 40 and wants to have a baby. Leonard pressures her in the manner of all fathers who want grandchildren: gently and teasingly, but also relentlessly. He sees her reunion with a former flame, Casey (Adrian Lester), as a waste of time, as Casey has already firmly declared that he does not want children. Why must Ariel constantly bend her will to match what her boyfriends want? Why can’t she stand up for herself? In other words, why can’t she be like the bold heroines of Leonard’s first two novels?

I think the title of the film (which is based on a novel by Brian Morton) is perfect, more so because no one in the movie ever actually says the words. We understand their meaning, though. Leonard seeks to find new vigor in the twilight of his life, and Ariel is learning she can still change and refine herself even as she approaches middle age. It is never too late to improve yourself and your circumstances.

As directed by Andrew Wagner and adapted by him and Fred Parnes, the movie slips into conventional behavior in the third act, where Leonard and Ariel’s conflicts with one another come off as melodramatic. (Note to screenwriters: The line “What’s that supposed to mean?!,” shouted in an argument between family members or other intimates, always sounds like it belongs in a TV movie-of-the-week.) The way Heather disappears from the film is unnerving, too, though perhaps necessary to shift the focus back to the Schillers.

There are so many small things about Langella’s performance that I love. Leonard is eloquent without being pretentious; when asked if last year’s heart surgery was scary he says, “It did tend to concentrate the mind.” He is clearly a man who has a way with words, and Langella’s soft voice and crisp enunciation remind me of a beloved college professor: intimidatingly brilliant, yet friendly and accessible. He is a man at whose feet anyone would love to study.

In fact, Langella is so believable as a novelist, in the way he speaks, the way he carries himself, the way he discusses his creative process with Heather, that watching him filled me with a desire to write a novel myself. I have no idea what it would be about, and I’m not sure I actually have the skills to do it, and I know for a fact that there are more than enough bad novels already out there — but Leonard Schiller made me WANT to. How many movies truly make you want to do anything?

B+ (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, brief sexuality, one F-word, a little nonsexual nudity.)