Among the many wonderful lines in the new film "Starting Out in the Evening" there is one that stands out as perhaps the ultimate reason that creative types do the things they do.
When aging novelist Leonard Schiller is asked why he is driven to keep writing, he rather flippantly states "the madness of art." In Schiller's case, this "madness" has become a blessing and a curse. Having written four novels in his younger years, and never quite recovering from the death of his wife midway through his career, he's living a hermetic existence where working on his "last novel" is an excuse to avoid painful truths about himself and fill the void in his life. He is in failing health after open-heart surgery, and the ravages of age are taking their toll. The spirit is willing, but his body is betraying him.
Also looking to fill a void in her life is Leonard's daughter, Ariel. Though devoted to her father, it is painfully obvious that there has been some serious muddy water under the bridge in their relationship. They seem close yet distant at the same time. Ariel is turning 40 and flighty. An over-the-hill dancer, she has become a slave to her biological clock. Her void must be filled by a baby and it must be filled now. She is using an unsuspecting boyfriend to achieve this end while pining for an old flame who has returned to town.
Into these two single-minded people's lives steps Heather Wolfe, a Brown University graduate student who is doing her masters thesis on Schiller and hopes to resurrect his career as a forgotten "great American novelist." She is big-eyed and passionate, and her youthful exuberance eventually wins over a reluctant Leonard, who decides to share his experience. What he doesn't count on, however, is her pointed questions about how much of himself is really in his novels and the increasing sexual tension between the May-December pair. Complicating matters is daughter Ariel, who sees Heather as an interloper on her father's affections and quite possibly someone who will achieve an intimacy with him that she has never had.
Heather as a catalyst in their lives forms the crux of "Starting Out in the Evening," and to say much more would spoil the pleasure of this truly moving and intelligent film. The fact that it is destined for limited art-house showings and Independent Film Channel obscurity is a shame.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Brian Morton, "Starting Out in the Evening" is directed with an acute sense of closeness by Andrew Wagner and blessed with an unusually smart screenplay by Fred Parnes. Though its themes have been seen before, the execution is a riveting and satisfying experience rarely had at the movies.
The lion's share of the film's success, however, must go to the actors. In a truly brave understated performance, Frank Langella invests Leonard Schiller with a melancholy depth that speaks volumes in his silences. Langella's Oscar-worthy turn was sadly overlooked in a year of more flamboyant acting.
The always dependable Lili Taylor plays Ariel with emotion and conviction in what could have been a third banana role. She becomes an integral part of the film's impact.
Lauren Ambrose, the redheaded daughter from "Six Feet Under," is a revelation as Heather Wolfe. She inhabits the character with an authenticity not often seen in a young actress. The chemistry between her and Langella is palpable, at turns sad, erotic and uncomfortable.
The truths on display in "Starting Out in the Evening" are universal. It covers wide ground yet remains personal in its meditations on growing older, the nature of intimacy, the exhilaration of passion and ultimately the "madness of art."