EDITORS NOTE: This review was originally published during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.]
There is moment late in Andrew Wagner's "Starting Out in the Evening" when the two main characters, Leonard Schiller, a 70-year-old novelist, and Heather, his attractive 20-something academic disciple, appear to have reached a superficial detente. But just when you think everything has been resolved, Schiller makes a bold, simple move that upends the calm and violates the peace. It's a brilliant dramatic instant, more humane than David Mamet, but just as fiercely revealing of the multifaceted tensions that persist between the characters -- and one of many in this impressively acted movie.
Adapted from the book by Brian Morton, though it feels like an excellent off-Broadway play, "Starting Out in the Evening" traces the relationship between Schiller (an outstanding Frank Langella) and Heather (a luminous Lauren Ambrose), a graduate student who wants to write her thesis about the elderly, out-of-print novelist. While Schiller first rejects Heather's entreaties to interview him, he eventually succumbs to the young beauty after reading some of her work in a literary journal. Or is he fooling himself -- does he agree because Heather's face lights up like a beacon when she smiles or that she kissed his knuckles as if a rock star's during their first encounter? Or that she may be his ticket to a hip, young publishing world that has long forgotten him?
The multi-layered motivations are constant in "Starting Out," which is one of the reasons why the film is such a kick. Initially, some of the acting feels a tad stilted and the environment a little airless. But quickly, the movie leaps into what is a fascinating account of generational conflict, romantic complexity and father-daughter dynamics. The daughter, in question, is not Heather (though one could make the claim), but Schiller's Ariel (Lili Taylor), a 40-year-old woman with intimacy issues that result from her father's lack of attention when she was growing-up. Ariel's own personal dramas (the fact that she's running out of time to have a child) eventually reverberate with Schiller's own issues; instead of clumsy exposition, the film offers Ariel's life as a bruising reflection of Schiller's past and his present.
But the film's best scenes, hands down, are the intimate battle of wits between Schiller and Heather, brimming as they are with sexual tension and intellectual rigor. A lesser movie would have made Heather some sort of scheming feminist, using her nubile body to lure the old-fashioned letch to get what she wants. But "Starting Out in the Evening" is infinitely more sophisticated, as both characters make a range of unexpected choices that aren't planned as much as sprung spontaneously out of the moment.
Andrew Wagner last appeared at Sundance with "The Talent Given Us," a very different, but no less satisfying documentary-like portrait of his own hilariously screwed up family on a road-trip from New York to Los Angeles (it's the far more credible and superior "Little Miss Sunshine"). With "Starting out in the Evening," the last and probably best film produced under the now defunct InDigEnt banner (which brought us past Sundance faves "Pieces of April" and "Personal Velocity"), Wagner proves himself just as adept working with real actors. Langella - reserved, frail and powerful, miraculously all at the same time - turns in a strong performance, while Ambrose is a formidable match, despite the fact she's half his size. Their dance is a fascinating one, a kind of complex, intimate waltz of dueling ambitions and desires.