Nov 21, 2007

On Starting Out In The Evening

The last gasp for Gary Winick’s InDigEnt label, which since 2000 specialized in heartfelt and unadorned NYC indies, usually shot on digital for south of a million dollars, Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out In The Evening also happens to be the best of an impressive if uneven group of films, a meticulously acted kammerspiel marvel, deftly avoiding the clichés that latch onto films about secluded, ambitious writers, young and old alike.

Frank Langella, in perhaps his most accomplished screen performance in a long and terrific career, plays Leonard Schiller, a critically well regarded, but underappreciated literary novelist, a member of the bygone era in which Jewish American realism of Roth and Bellow dominated the serious novel, who has recently gone out of print. Dressed to the nines everyday, Leonard is of that Jewish Upper West Side stock that only wears nice sweaters, pressed trousers and dinner jackets over oxfords and black ties. He goes to readings at the 92nd Street Y (for Joie Lee of all people, or Joie Lee playing some unnamed multicult literary star) to mingle with editors who with a friendly smile inform him they just don’t have the time of day anymore for his brand of prose. He’s flailing toward a new book halfheartedly, just as his nearly middle aged daughter Ariel (the always terrific Lily Taylor), a directionless woman, sometimes a dancer and more frequently a pilates instructor, loved but shunned by her father since an early age, stumbles clumsily into an affair with her commitment phobe ex-boyfriend (Adrian Lester). Meanwhile, a hungry, red-headed grad student with a Schiller dissertation to write (Lauren Ambrose) corners our Lion In Winter, first making him reevaluate his work in lieu of a number of unearthed biographical allegations concerning his wife, only to seduce him with a coterie of loaded gestures (smudging honey on his unsuspecting lips perhaps the most dramatically effective).

You smell the sex on Ambrose from the moment you see her, but the progression toward the inevitable if doomed coupling of the two is handled just right, Schiller being stirred by her ever so gently, his instincts to hide from others emotionally slowly peeled away by her prodding questions, her legitimate enthusiasm for her work and the hardwiring of straight accomplished men when presented with fawning if inquisitive younger women. Of course the aftermath is not pretty, and the film suggests that the young woman has acted in an impulsive and dangerous manner considering the fragility of her charge, but without judging her, Wagner manages to dramatize the positive, if costly, mutual growth that springs in it’s wake. Particularly riveting is a two-word scene, after a medical scare that begins the third act, in which Schiller finally proves capable of really seeing his daughter, where we are free to glimpse a pair of savvy veteran performers making so much of so very little.

If not for the delicate craftsmanship of the cast and the sure hand of Wagner, whose HD shot movie has a lyricism and a brisk immediacy unusual for the infant format and without ever seeming flashy or manipulative, the material could have slipped into a rote unpacking of timeworn narrative strategies, but it doesn’t, resolving to proceed into a tough and indecisive third act that left the audience unambiguously disliking one of the central figures, even as the filmmaking suggest the follies of youth are to be forgiven, or at least tolerated, especially by the wise, who, of course, are still learning, even in the evening of life.