The Reeler


November 21, 2007

Starting Out in the Evening

Ambrose and Langella make an engrossing pair in stirring, strange adaptation

"I can't believe it's you," Heather (Lauren Ambrose) says to Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), upon coaxing the reticent, once-celebrated author out for a meeting with a grad student with a gleam -- and a thesis -- in her eye. "I can't believe it's me either," he replies.

It's the perfect opening for Starting Out in the Evening, Andrew Wagner's poised, surprisingly unsettling film about the half-life of a fiction writer -- the symbiotic relationship between the life he lives and the lives he writes about, and the death that occurs when he fails to respect that connection. Wagner uses the initial meeting between Heather and Leonard to give a quick, somewhat blunt set-up for the film: the lean and hungry neophyte is proposing to save Leonard's career by writing a book that will re-introduce readers to Schiller's novels, all four of which are out of print. In her hard sell, somewhat mitigated by her soft, glowing eyes, she even references The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley's survey (and re-vivification) of that writer's career.

Brilliantly conceived in Brian Morton's novel (which Wagner adapted with Fred Parnes), Heather is an extraordinarily forward young woman, and Ambrose nails that certain callow, shameless brand of Manhattan striver, the insulated precocity that, in the right climate, survives well into the 20s. Heather is not just ambition but entitled ambition; it is embedded in the snug cut of her tight-waisted coat, the swing of her glossy sheath of red hair and the candy-apple outline of her perfectly painted mouth. Well-bred and well-connected, she is the fate and the future of the publishing industry; Leonard, with his artery-friendly diet and funny ideas about artistic integrity, is all too obviously the past.

Despite four forgotten novels and a fifth going on 10 years in the making, Schiller is still a writer; he works every day, though often in lieu of not only leaving the house but living. The ambition and ego that once fueled his career seem folded away, along with the clothes of his deceased wife, though after initially demurring from Heather, he succumbs to her pushy plaudits and the prospect of a little stolen glory in the twilight. With their regular meetings and her oddly insinuating manner, Heather threatens the pole position of the main woman in Leonard's life, his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor). Ariel is avoiding her own life as well, refusing the proposal of one man for the conditional love of another, and garnering the vague disapproval of her father in the process.

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The ontological struggle between Leonard and Heather comes down to Leonard's belief that "a writer's words are fingerprints, the writer is not important" and Heather's need for some juice, some dirt, a hot mess of autobiographical analysis to keep her project in vogue with authorial surveys of the day. That struggle manifests itself in a more earthbound one, between subject and object, age and youth, man and woman. The dynamic between them grows complex and Heather forges her emotional inroads further and further against Leonard's stubborn impasse in search a scoop.

To be a writer you have to hurt people, and while Heather has this tenet locked up, it's one Leonard needs to revisit; ironically this re-acquaintance comes as a result of the Heather imbroglio, and to the benefit of his languishing novel. Wagner plays with some tricky, saucy and (in one case) honey-dipped moments between the two, and they all come off by the skin of his engrossingly committed actors' teeth. Ambrose is actually given the more difficult task of the two, her Heather a living puzzle of motive and refractive motivation. Langella effectively plays a man who is all shadow, no reflection; he can butter and bite a piece of toast with such a multitudinous mingling of pathos and pleasure that Wagner has him do it about 17 times.

Quiet, calamitous, stirring and strange, Starting Out in the Evening and Leonard Schiller in particular reminded me of the final lines of John Williams's Stoner, a largely forgotten, out-of-print 1965 book about an unassuming writer and English professor that has been critically rediscovered -- with a fervor that would make our Heather drool -- due to its republication by the New York Review of Books Classics last year. William Stoner is ending out the evening of his own life, holding what would appear to be his life's work in his hands: "It hardly mattered that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there."

I can think of no greater success for Wagner and his film than in summoning the broken, enduring spirit of one of literature's greatest existential heroes.

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