STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING

Andrew Wagner’s deep, sweet, thoughtful film is a vision of the solitary life of writing as it opens up to the input of others. We first see him eyes closed, hands clasped in front of him, almost praying, sitting in front of his typewriter. Here is a man who is uncertain where to go next. His name is Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) and he was once a decently famous author in New York who wrote four published books (and two unpublished ones) and has been working on his latest work for over ten years. Then, a breath of fresh air. Into his life comes Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose of TV’s “Six Feet Under”), an ambitious and surprisingly thoughtful young graduate student who has fallen in love with Leonard’s work and wants to write a critical career-spanning piece on him for her Master’s thesis. Leonard is at first resistant to her advances, but is soon agreeing to meet and discuss his work with her on a weekly basis. Leonard is not well after a recent stroke and is trying desperately to get his final work out in the world, and at first sees Heather as a distraction before coming to appreciate her company, as well as her appreciation of his work; there is no greater aphrodisiac to an artist than finding someone to love their work. Early in their discussions, Heather kisses his hand and may in fact be infatuated with him – does she love him or his work? We think we know where this will go – a May-December romance for the ages with all the care and meaning of a sexual fling, but it’s more than that; how much more I will leave you to discover. Meanwhile, Leonard has a daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), a 40-ish pilates instructor who desperately wants to have a baby – so desperately, in fact, that she is currently having unprotected sex with her boyfriend to “trick” him into having a baby, although she sees him more as a means to an end, not as part of the actual life of the child. She once broke up with the love of her life, Casey (Adrian Lester of “Primary Colors”) because he didn’t want children and, it’s hinted, all but forced her to have an abortion – a decision neither one of them could withstand the strain of. When he comes back into her life unexpectedly, will either of them have the fortitude to see their relationship through this time? The film was directed and co-written by Andrew Wagner, who made the semi-autobiographical pseudo-documentary about his troublesome family, “The Talent Given Us” (2004). This film, based on a novel by Brian Morton, is just slightly more dramatic and less like a documentary. The characters are all bright, intelligent, thoughtful and literate people who are well-spoken and well-read, careful about the words they use, goal-oriented but sensitive to the needs of others. Frank Langella gives the performance of his career as Leonard, a fiercely smart, uncompromising but kind-eyed old soul who is afraid to move forward in his life and yet doesn’t precisely want to remain in neutral either, though his work suggests otherwise. Ambrose is strong as the young firebrand who catches his fancy and attracts his intellect, an intelligent and well-read romantic who thinks she wants to be close to the man whose work inspired her to be a writer; how close is too close is unclear. This could’ve been simply about these two intellectual writers with a massive age difference coming to terms with one-another and, perhaps, falling in love, but I also cared for Ariel as the self-doubting (perhaps, indeed, self-loathing) daughter who is aging too quickly and can hear her biological clock echoing in her mind, and Casey as the well-meaning and nice young man who loves Ariel but has always put his own desires and needs first – at no point including having children on his radar screen. These four people are searching for, in their own way, love and happiness and some of them go about it in the wrong way, and some of them may never be completely happy; their struggles are believable and absorbing, never punched up for dramatic effect. The results are oddly fascinating and utterly moving; one of the year’s best films!

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<br/><br /><br />NOTE: Nominated for Best Male Lead and Screenplay (Wagner and Fred Parnes) at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards.

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