Book Report

Intelligence and a respect for the audience help 'Starting Out in the Evening' overcome a tired subplot

The problem with action movies is that they rarely give the audience any good reason to care about the action. Like, wouldn't it better if, instead of starting every James Bond film with a scene of Bond skiing naked down a giant dinosaur while shooting a bazooka at trained ninja monkeys, they all started with Bond talking about feelings? That way, you'd really care later, during the fight scene with the large-breasted assassin, when he realizes that no amount of sex and murder will ever give him the love that his father withheld when he was young.

Starting Out in the Evening understands this problem, and creates the exact opposite of an action film: Instead of lots of unmotivated activity, there's almost nothing but the building of motivation. None of this is accomplished in simple exposition; instead, there is a series of hints and feints, indicating that someone might be planning something, a feeling might be emerging, a scene of reckless violence or destructive sexuality might emerge. And yet, it's never clear what will occur, because no one says what they mean, and all the looks and touches, the dialogue and action, have a sickly ambiguity, creating far more tension than any straightforward display of violence and passion ever could.

Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is an underachieving writer nearing the end of his life. For the last 10 years, he's been stuck on a novel he's been trying to finish, but, as he puts it, his characters aren't doing anything interesting.

Then, an attractive young English-lit major named Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) finds him and asks if she can interview him for her thesis. When he realizes that this might be his chance to get back in the public eye, Schiller agrees. However, he's incapable of talking about his life, why he does anything or where his characters come from. He's just a bundle of button-down repression, and his failure to write starts to seem like a failure to live.

And this is what Heather Wolfe senses: In fact, she's only attracted to the first two of his four books. The later books strike her as unemotional and lacking in life. But her efforts to draw out of Schiller the source of this change are met with artful evasions masquerading as propriety.

This is where Starting Out in the Evening really shines: Instead of having Schiller explain himself, having his story come out in narration, the explanation of the character is in what's not said. Screenwriters Fred Parnes and Andrew Wagner, adapting the novel by Brian Morton, have a tremendous knack for the passive-aggressive feint.

Lauren Ambrose, as Heather Wolfe, is the perfect foil for Langella's uptight Schiller. She adds an intense and evil sheen, and her interest in Schiller always seems to verge on the invasive and inappropriate, with flashing moods and glances that seem increasingly dangerous.

It's not just her borderline obsession with Schiller (although that creates a lot of the tension); it's that even her opinion that his later novels are weak seems like the sort of thing that could destroy him. While it would be trite and sexist to have yet another film about a beautiful woman stalking a man, that's not where Wagner and Parnes go with this film. Instead, the plot takes a much meaner, more psychological and far more real twist as Wolfe turns out to be more ambitious than fixated. Still, it remains clear that something, and probably something terribly unhappy, is going to happen.

Unfortunately, Wagner and Parnes don't quite trust this story, and they indulge in a tired and sentimental subplot about Schiller's daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) who, at age 40, is desperate for a baby, and is considering reuniting with an ex-boyfriend (Adrian Lester) who never wanted a family. When the Lili Taylor/Adrian Lester story becomes dominant in the later third, it crowds out the story of Heather Wolfe.

But it's not all bad. The final sequences with Schiller are excellent, and with only about 20 minutes of useless flab, this film does better than most. It also makes use of far more ambiguity than the average movie: Wolfe spends much of the film disparaging Schiller's last two books, and it seems as though these are clearly inferior works. But then Ariel's boyfriend talks about how it's only in his later books that Schiller is able to speak about real issues, and not simply private sentiment.

That kind of ambiguity is extremely rare in American cinema: Usually, if something is deemed bad, it's necessary to the plot that it stay that way. By establishing that the later novels are boring, and then presenting, late in the film, an alternate position, Parnes and Wagner throw everything into doubt. This brings Wolfe into stark relief: Was she wrong in all her feelings toward Schiller and his work? Unfortunately, the film turns away from her, and though the ending is satisfying, it could have been more so.

While this may not be a great film, its intelligence and respect for the audience make it very, very good.