Starting Out in the Evening (2007) **
Directed by Andrew Wagner
Characters like Leonard Schiller and Heather Wolfe only exist in movies—too many movies. Here’s the same old story about the reclusive author inspired by a young protégé. Doesn’t that sound sort of like Field of Dreams, Finding Forrester and more recently Nim’s
What’s almost worth the time to watch Starting Out in the Evening is the excellent performance from esteemed character actor Frank Langella as Leonard. Langella finds just the right tone to showcase Leonard’s growing weariness of the world. We are told early on that he recently suffered a heart attack which has forced him to slow down and retire from teaching. Now he dedicates his days to writing the novel that has eluded him for decades. Towards the end of the film, as Leonard’s health gets worse, Langella performs a scene in a bathtub requiring him to stand up. Here we see this old actor’s nude body on display. I definitely give Langella credit for agreeing to expose himself for the film. Yet, what’s extremely irritating about that scene is the fact that it is completely unnecessary and Langella’s nudity is totally gratuitous. The point of the scene is to focus on how Leonard must give up his pride and self-dependence in order to rely on the help of others. My question for writer/director Andrew Wagner would be, “Why show him in a bathtub when there are other (less cliché) ways to emphasize his neediness without forcing Langella to appear nude on screen?” Even if Wagner was insistent on having Leonard in a bathtub, the camera could have followed Langella as he stood up showing the audience his back and not his buttocks. That would give the illusion that the person bathing him would see him but we wouldn’t have to. Again, I’m not saying that it’s disgusting to see an old man nude on screen. What I am saying is that this scene feels totally inconsistent and uncomfortably unnecessary. I admire Langella’s gumption, but I feel bad for him as well because of what this film had him do.
Lauren Ambrose, known for her role on HBO’s Six Feet Under, is undoubtedly an interesting, attractive presence on screen. However, her performance as Heather is too broad and way too obvious. She contacts Leonard and asks him for interviews. At first, Leonard kindly refuses, but Heather’s not the sort who takes no for an answer. She appears at his upscale apartment in
One of my biggest problems with Starting Out in the Evening is the fact that so many conversations in the film deal directly with the world of literary criticism. As someone that tries to intellectually examine film at an extremely amateur level, I know how challenging criticism can be. Literary criticism is a thousand times more sophisticated than film criticism in my opinion, and as such, Wagner’s screenplay had to tackle the difficult task of making his intelligent characters sound like they not only know what they are talking about but also that they are exceptional in this arena. Over and over again, conversations regarding literature felt disingenuous and unimpressive. It’s almost as if these characters believe themselves to be knowledgeable but in reality, they lack the experience and skills necessary to blossom as literary experts. Hey, if you’re going to write characters in the world of academia, you’ve got to make them sound like they belong in the world of academia.
Once their first interview concludes, Heather grabs Leonard’s hands and begins to kiss them. Leonard pulls away and politely asks her to go. I was absolutely shocked by Heather’s advance since of all, it came out of nowhere, and second, it made me think that Heather was clinically insane. Watch this moment and tell me what kind of person would do something like that? Yes, Heather is meant to be impulsive, but there’s a fine line between impulsive and psychotic! Leonard inexplicably agrees to meet with Heather again with no qualms at all. Personally, if I were Leonard, that would have been the end of the interviews. At least, I think Leonard should have immediately demanded that the two of them discuss Heather’s intentions and the idea of appropriate boundaries. For a man so set in his ways, it doesn’t make sense that he would be so passive, blasé and naive about Heather’s first romantic advance.
That leads me to wonder why Heather pursued Leonard romantically at all. After all, she’s 25 and he’s well over 70. Was she really attracted to him? She says at one point that she was an outcast as a kid, and it’s his books that helped her to feel like she belonged somewhere. You’d think with a man as smart as Leonard, he’d see this as unhealthy, misdirected affection. Heather wants to be with her idea of Leonard rather than with Leonard himself.
Eventually, Leonard falls in love with Heather, which predictably ends with him getting hurt badly because of her immaturity. Once Heather is out of the picture, the film focuses more on Leonard’s irritating yoga instructor daughter Ariel, played terribly by Lili Taylor, and her ex-fiancé Casey, played by the always interesting Adrian Lester. Ariel, now 40, wants children and companionship badly, in that order. One night, she’s stranded in the city and calls on Casey to pick her up which reunites their relationship. She decides that she wants to have children before it’s too late. She manipulates her contraception in order to make that possible. The glitch here is that she doesn’t tell Casey who has always been dead set against having children. Eventually, something happens to Leonard that makes her reexamine her life and her priorities. In one of the biggest stretches of plot that I’ve seen in a film in a long time, Casey also ends up affected by and even taking responsibility for Leonard’s incapacitation apart from Ariel. By the end of the film, people are profoundly different than they were at the beginning, except for Heather, since her character removes herself once Leonard gets sick.
All of this stuff is pretty schmaltzy, and Wagner doesn’t quite know how to present it in a coherent way. Clearly, he’s trying to rise above movie-of-the-week territory, and I think he succeeds. However, in doing so, he blankets this film with an importance that it simply doesn’t live up to. Had he decided to throw out the Ariel and Casey storylines completely and clean up the relationship between Leonard and Heather, then perhaps the film would have felt more focused. Instead, the only worthy elements the viewer is left with are a semi-interesting teacher/student romantic relationship and an amazing performance by an underappreciated veteran