Making art about art, a vaguely incestuous and yet high-minded endeavour, can result in the cultural equivalent of English royalty: an overburdened and pretentious product coated with grandeur but ultimately quite dull. That Starting Out in the Evening, a film which references Faulkner, Hemingway and Narayan, escapes such dreary elitism is due equally to Frank Langella’s exquisite performance and the writing of Fred Parnes and Andrew Wagner (who also directed).
Langella plays Leonard Schiller, an esteemed but forgotten American novelist (all four of his books are long out of print) desperate to eke out one final opus. He spends his days ensconced in his Upper West Side apartment, pecking fruitlessly at his manual typewriter. His dutiful daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) is his cook, companion and only visitor. That is, until change arrives as Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a bright and bright-eyed graduate student who wants to write her thesis on Schiller, cementing him in the pantheon of Great American Writers and introducing him to a new generation. Resigned to being a recluse and dogmatic about his routine, Leonard declines the offer. After facing rejection from publishers, however, he reconsiders, and the two embark on a painful path of introspection, loss and the possibility of a May/December romance.
Langella embodies the enigmatic, elegiac Schiller with such conviction and compassion that Wagner is often reduced to a technician, required only to point the camera in his direction. The actor shapes his silences with as much care as his lines, evoking stubbornness, empathy, desire and affront with the subtlest shading of his eyes. Etched in his lined face and pale skin are the years of interminable loneliness brought on by the death of his wife. A muted intensity seeps through the crusty façade he presents to Heather, an intensity which deepens her attraction to him, academically and otherwise. Langella utilizes a reduced palette of acting tropes, which, far from limiting the portrayal, seem to liberate him in a manner similar to the exuberant minimalist paintings of Gerhard Richter and Frank Stella.
Lauren Ambrose (a Six Feet Under alum) as Heather fails to impress, capturing the drive and naivete of a postgraduate but never digging deep enough to find the connection between her ingénue and Langella’s genius. Extra credit to Wagner and the casting director for embracing a romantic lead with a healthy figure and unconventional beauty. Lili Taylor is phenomenal as Schiller’s daughter, a woman perennially adrift, steaming towards forty without a partner or a child and in desperate need of both. Her lithe physicality and angular face toy with shadow and light; she has that indefinable quality, like Diane Lane and Maria Bello, that compels us to watch her whenever she is onscreen and to search for her when she is not. Also of note is Adrian Lester (of AMC’s Hu$tle) as Ariel’s on-again, off-again, on-again love interest. Their tender, complicated relationship is one of the best parts of this well-written film (more extra credit for presenting an interracial couple as normalized and part of the reality of present-day America).
Despite the acting and directorial talent, this film, explicitly about writing, would have failed without the smart, self-aware, simply charming script by Parnes and Wagner. Given the inherently uncinematic nature of the craft, very little writing takes place in front of the camera, even though two of the four main characters spend most of their time doing it. To compensate, Parnes imbues the entire script with a lingering, meditative quality, where conflicts are more often postponed than resolved, characters are more likely to bear the brunt of their sins than blame others, and dialogue interrupts silence rather than the other way around.
Wagner does his part by setting up static shots, or else slow, languorous tracking shots, or else handheld shots refreshingly calm and measured (and none of the trendy frenzy of Paul Greengrass et al). Shot entirely on location in New York City, the film feels decidedly urban and sophisticated, yet its four-person microcosm of raw human emotion grounds the film in universal reality. The relentless drumbeat of traditional Hollywood dramas, inexorably pushing the story forward and escalating the conflict, would have sliced this film to about half its 111 minutes, effectively preventing it from being made at all. The added breathing room of an indie film is here vitally utilized, extending scenes past their traditional breakpoints to provide poignant and honest moments.
The film ends where it began: with Leonard at his typewriter, staring into the middle distance. And, as with all good art about art, the theme is not a trumpet note blared across the house speakers but a soft melody that may exist only inside your head. Standing Out in the Evening does not insist that art is easy, or that it is devilishly difficult, or that it is the province of a gifted few, although it does say these things. It suggests that the true essence of art is lived experience, that in our triumphs and tragedies, our most private suffering and personal ecstasies, we are each great artists, with some good work already behind us and with a nagging desire to eke out just one more opus – a novel, an improbable romance, a commitment, a child. Art is not great because New York critics lauded it fifty years ago; it is great because the artist knows that it is honest, it is true, and it is grounded in reality. Standing Out in the Evening is honest, true and grounded in reality, and therefore it is art.
Starting Out in the Evening
Directed by Andrew Wagner.
With Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Adrian Lester.
111 minutes. Drama.