Monday, May 12, 2008

Film Review: Starting Out In The Evening

"Starting Out In The Evening" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Andrew Wagner's "Starting Out In The Evening" is one of those films you feel you should like. You almost feel a certain amount of pressure to force yourself to like it. But in the end, the film simply doesn't live up to the ideas presented.

"Starting Out In The Evening" stars Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller. A 70-ish writer who wrote four novels which are currently out of print. He was once part of the in-crowd in the literary world, now is he but a faint memory. Hardly read anymore, especially by a younger generation an offer comes his way. A young college student, Heather (Lauren Ambrose) wants to write her college thesis on him. She hopes it will rejuvenate his career in the process and introduce his work to a new generation. Leonard reluctantly agrees.

Leonard Schiller is an old-fashion man. He always dresses conservatively, he even wears a tie when sitting at his desk writing. To have a young woman follow him around asking him question will be both a disturbance and a distraction. For the last ten years Leonard has been trying to finish his fifth novel, which, given his age and health, Leonard knows will be his last.

Heather is a bit of an opposite. A young, ambitious, brash woman who despite her college education, hasn't learned the meaning of the word "no". She's like one of those guest at a party who just won't leave, at least not until she gets what she wants first. We sense Heather is up to more than she lets on. She seems to be wearing a poker face which Leonard either can't read or is simply willing to go along for the ride.

Leonard also has a daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor) who at 40 years old feels her biological clock tick, tick, ticking away. She is not married and sees no prospects on the horizon except for an ex, Casey (Adrian Lester) who told her he didn't want any children, causing a very bad break-up which lead Ariel in a year long depression.

And so one of the themes of "Starting Out In The Evening" is revealed. Time. Leonard makes much of his age and dying. He repeatedly says time is running out for him. He needs to finish his novel. His age is countered by Heather's youth and what seems to be an attraction to older, intellectual men. Then there is Ariel who feels she is running out of time to conceive a child and Casey whose time acting selfish is running out.

All of this sounds quite interesting. And the performances are wonderful. There was much buzz about Langella receiving an Oscar nomination. He is terribly convincing as a lonely, forgotten writer facing death. No other actor could have played this part with his subtle nature. I have a feeling he fleshed the character out more so than was written on the page. And Ambrose for the first time in her career, which started getting attention in the teen comedy "Can't Hardly Wait", proves she may be one of those actresses who sticks around for a while.

But "Starting Out In The Evening" fails ultimately because the film, like a novel, is about words and ideas. That is fine by me, but, you see, cinema is a visual medium. Nearly nothing cinematically gets the film's themes across. Everything is said by word. The film presents ideas about the writer and his process but never presented them in a way I found interesting. I never cared about these people. While the performances are good, at times they seemed cliche. The young girl attracted to the older man. The older man attracted to the young woman in the hopes it will bring back some sense of youth. Kind of like the professor and the student relationship. It becomes a little to self-important for me.

Though my opinion is in the minority. Several critics, some whom I greatly admire, gushed beautiful praises at the film. Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars. A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote a favorable review and Stephen Holden also of the Times, placed the film on his year end, top ten list. I think the reason these men did this is because they can probably relate more closely to this character than I. These men, and really most professional critics, are middle-aged men. They carry a self-importance attitude. They think they are intellectuals. They probably see themselves in this man. And that's fine. But they are bringing something to the table which may not have been there to begin with. They are adding a narrative which I don't think exist. They are placing their hopes and dreams into this character and using it as a mirror. In which case, we can say any movie is great. How could one fail when we add to the story filling the plot cracks?

"Starting Out In The Evening" is not a bad film. It is not a waste of time. But, given what the film seems to want to accomplish it is a bit of a letdown. The viewer has to add to much of their self to make the film work. Movies shouldn't be so much work. They should just enter inside of us with no effort or resistance.