“You gave me the courage to live life for myself”
In a time of year when most films entering the public arena are either devoid of intelligence or dumped for release in attempts to recoup just a little of their budget, it is nice to know we in Buffalo still get the off the beaten track indies to satiate those looking for an evening of pondering and contemplation. Starting Out in the Evening is one of those movies, despite the fact that it comes to DVD in a little over a month, making it one of those dumped films in the end. Either way, besides some general flaws and a few scenes that did not work for me, I can safely say that I thoroughly enjoyed it as a whole. The acting helps vault the script up by portraying many moments of silence. We see what they think, we see their reactions to the awkwardness of relationships, and we see their flaws without the need of bombast and explanation. This is a very literary work, as it should be coming from a novel, and I believe that essence stays intact. Leonard Schiller may be the center of the tale as his work becomes the subject of a young woman’s thesis, but it is his style that stays unwavering onscreen. Novelist Brian Morton’s characters become the embodiment of Schiller’s, evolving and becoming what they should be through the addition of freedom in their lives. However, it is this freedom that glaring becomes its fault. The ability to change and not do the easy thing is noble, the fact that we hear about the fiction characters doing this and then see the film’s cast also, you start to wonder if the deep meaning you saw at the start was really just a trite exercise in duplicity and sentimentality winning out over meaningful prose devoid of personal experience. I guess it all depends on the reader, some love “Tenderness” and other “The Lost City.” To each their own.
There are some amazing moments in this film that end up getting somewhat overshadowed by the neatly tied up conclusion. I almost wish this film could have been just Frank Langella’s subtle and poignant portrayal of Schiller opposite Lauren Ambrose’s radiant yet naïve grad student Heather Wolfe. This is where the interesting stuff occurs. Don’t get me wrong, the parallel tale of Schiller’s daughter, played superbly by Lili Taylor, and her wrestling with personal demons in the guise of ex-love Casey, Adrian Lester, grows into something more than the aside it starts out as. In actuality, this thread leads to one of my favorite scenes of Taylor finally standing up for herself, finally becoming like those women in her father’s first two novels—strong, assured, and unafraid to make the tough decisions in order to fulfill their own happiness. Telling her counterpart to leave at her most vulnerable because she knows she’ll never be that strong again was a truly powerful exchange. It is just that on the whole, she and Lester become pawns in the film serving only to run their course like the characters of Schiller’s work. They are props to prove a point and maybe that sentimentality just didn’t sit well with me tonight, but it just seemed too orchestrated.
Back to our leads, though, Langella and Ambrose stay true to throughout. Do they evolve? Sure, but they also show the most flaws and imperfections. Both see what they want in each other—her a man with something to say, something to contribute to the world unlike those of her young age, and he a woman, young and beautiful, unafraid to act on her instincts, something he may have stopped doing many years ago when his wife died. The facades soon fade and show through to the truth beneath, laying bare their souls. Both get something from the exchange, but at what cost? Every young writer needs to come to that point where she discovers whether she will sacrifice relationships for the work or the work for those around her, (a subject I adore as one would know from my love of the film Capote). It just so happens that while she picks the road she knows she has to, it is the view of her decision that brings back the memories to Schiller of the years where he did the same. Maybe he let his guard down, maybe he needed to be awoken to the cruel world around him in order to free his characters from the safe and neutral path they had been traveling for over a decade, either way, while his body may fail, his mind becomes invigorated to do right again, by both his work and his family. It is a strong core that carries the film well, but while it only alludes to the stories within the story, those side plots blatantly call the comparisons up, making the strength become more of a crutch and contrivance.
The moments that work do work to wonderful effect. Ambrose telling her idol why his novel touched her so deeply while waiting for the elevator is fantastic, and the quote used to title this review; the final encounter between the two at his kitchen table is so true and releasing for both; and even a small scene in a movie theatre line, opening Taylor’s eyes to her boyfriend’s true core being, stick with you long after they pass. Thankfully they stand out more than those moments that unfortunately bring more smirks and head scratching than feelings of awe, (think honey absurdity), because while the film is somewhat of a mixed bag, what you really remember are those scenes that I’m sure the filmmakers hoped you would. With a little reservation, I will recommend this film for those moments and the discussion that it can elicit afterwards; weighty subjects that can be expounded on using what you’ve seen as a springboard for more.
Starting Out in the Evening 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
 Frank Langella (“Leonard Schiller”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Starting Out in the Evening.
 Lauren Ambrose (“Heather Wolfe,” left) and Frank Langella (“Leonard Schiller,” right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Starting Out in the Evening.