Twenty-five year old Brown University graduate student Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) likens men her own age to chewing gum that lose their flavor after ten minutes while she chats up her esteemed literary idol, Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) over dinner. Aggressively flirtatious and pushy, the pretentious and affected Heather flatteringly fast-talks her way into Leonard’s life in the opening moments of Starting Out in the Evening by proposing that the best way to keep Leonard’s out of print novels from disappearing forever is if she resurrects them in an analytical thesis in this intellectually satisfying character drama from Andrew Wagner (himself a Brown graduate). Although reluctant at first and overwhelmed by the beautiful student’s hero worship and curiosity, Leonard wears down and soon she becomes a regular fixture in his apartment, asking one prying question after another which he mostly refuses to answer in her quest for a unifying thematic thread to surmise his career as evidenced in the four books he published and the fifth which he’s continually working on that has taken more than a decade.
Based on the Pen/Faulkner award nominated novel by Brian Morton, this Sundance Film Festival critical hit from 2007 has earned Langella numerous nominations and a Boston Society of Film Critics Best Actor Award for his portrayal of a man in the evening of his life being challenged by an inquisitive mind as well as the events in his past that are dredged up in the process. It’s these realizations that shed new light on his relationship with his fortyish adult daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), who is struggling with the urgency of her biological clock as she tries to get pregnant and along the way, falls back in love with her former flame Casey Davis (Adrian Lester) whose previous partnering nearly destroyed her when it ended after she realized that he didn’t want children and wasn’t about to change. While Ambrose grates on the nerves with her phony bravado, it’s the subtle Taylor who touches our hearts in her stunning turn as a woman who, on the surface seems to be trying to compensate for a childhood where she was overshadowed and neglected by her famous father by finding a man the opposite of Leonard, who suddenly realizes that despite superficial differences, that her current relationship and choice in Casey may be causing Ariel to relive that experience once again.
Beautifully acted with Taylor and Langella’s best roles in years, Wagner’s film alternately stirs and frustrates viewers. Admirably too, it’s one that holds a questioning mirror up to the literary world in not just the publishing realm but also in its critical approaches by showing us the humanity involved in the creation of art and how things cannot be summarized or evaluated in neat little sentences that are black or white, without acknowledging the planet of gray in between.