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STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING(director/writer: Andrew Wagner; screenwriters: from the novel by Brian Morton/Fred Parnes; cinematographer: Harlan Bosmajian; editor: Gena Bleier; music: Adam Gorgoni; cast: Lauren Ambrose (Heather Wolfe), Karl Bury (Frederick), Anitha Gandhi (Chelsea), Sean T. Krishnan (Ravadip Patel), Frank Langella (Leonard Schiller), Lili Taylor (Ariel Schiller), Adrian Lester (Casey Davis), Michael Cumpsty (Victor); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Nancy Israel/Fred Parnes/Gary Winick/Jake Abraham; Roadside Attractions; 2007)
“Its appeal is to a select audience, probably one that reads books that Oprah doesn’t recommend.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on the acclaimed 1999 novel by Brian Morton and co-written by Fred Parnes and the director Andrew Wagner (“The Talent Given Us”). The scene is set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where a once promising intellectual writer named Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) has grown old and forgotten, but is quite content to remain obscure and proud he never compromised himself to write crap for money. He’s visited in his apartment by an ambitious Brown University grad student, a 25-year-old who is a third of his age, named Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), who wants to do her master’s thesis on the reclusive writer and to get his books reprinted. Leonard has for the last ten years been working in seclusion on a novel, but can’t seem to finish it ever since his wife died in a traffic fatality. He earns money as an English lit college professor, and feels obligated to help his daughter find a happiness that has always eluded him.

Leonard reluctantly agrees to be interviewed by Heather, and soon finds she’s asking him intimate questions he has always dodged about his work and is also coming on to him; both acts have a deeply unsettling affect on him. Ariel (Lili Taylor) is Leonard’s aberrant and free-spirited–soon to be 40-year-old–yoga instructor daughter who even though she’s single is trying to conceive a baby before her biological clock runs out of time. She tries with her lawyer friend Victor, but bolts when he suggests marriage. Then she picks up again a romance that soured five years ago with a black magazine writer named Casy (Adrian Lester), who makes it clear he doesn’t want children.

This modest budgeted film sets a quiet intellectual literary scene that rings true as it focuses on such things as writing for one self, the affects of the writer’s personal life on his writing, handling the aging process, a father and daughter’s touchy relationship and the itch one has for intimacy. The joyless Leonard’s return to worldly things when he becomes taken in by Heather’s aggressive loving gestures, leads him frighteningly away from his carefully chosen familiar path and into uncharted waters. But this new tension gets the ailing writer’s juices flowing again, and he starts anew on his novel with characters who reflect his new found zest for life.

It’s a lugubrious tale that benefits greatly by a first-class classy performance by Langella. He’s convincing as the once famous Jewish writer from the 1950s, who was once an active part of the intellectual liberal literary scene; he’s someone you can sympathize with even when he puts on professorial airs and acts stodgy, though the pic is nearly done in by the unconvincing and schematized relationship thrown into the mix between him and the grad student. It also benefits from a solid performance from the always reliable Taylor, who might be a little nut-so but evinces support for trying so desperately to realize her maternal needs. Wagner offers fine economical direction and there’s an intelligent screenplay for grownups to ponder. Its appeal is to a select audience, probably one that reads books that Oprah doesn’t recommend.

REVIEWED ON 11/19/2007 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”