'Starting Out': A Quiet Gem For the Season

Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella star as a pair coming to terms in a movie about an author with writer's block.
Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella star as a pair coming to terms in a movie about an author with writer's block. (By Annabel Clark -- Roadside Attractions)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

Sic transit gloria New York. Once the novelist Leonard Schiller was the rage. Once he was in the referential zone of the culture. He became an adjective; other writers were called "Schillerian" or something like it, possibly "Schilleresque," "Schillerlike" or even in the punspeak of Time, "a schiller's market." It was Mr. Schiller's World.

All that is gone now in the superb "Starting Out in the Evening," an aching account of an old-lion writer's winter of discontent. It watches closely as Schiller surrenders none of his discipline, none of his dignity, none of his ferocity. And so real is he in Frank Langella's performance, you can't help but feel the play of ideas and emotions across Schiller's intellect.

Langella, so good in movies of high smarm and flamboyant cruelty, has the luck in this independent production to show a more human scale, a quiet decency. You never feel him strain; like the Schiller whose skin he inhabits, he's tightly disciplined, committed, a believer in the power of literature.

You might call him homo Upper West Side. That's where he lives and eats. That's where he gets up early each morning, shaves, showers in his well-kept apartment and puts on a fresh white shirt, a dark tie (never, over the long day, loosened) and a tweed jacket. He has buttered toast for breakfast, does the dishes and sits down at the electric typewriter, no computer nonsense for him. He's equal parts Saul Bellow, John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Harold Brodkey, Philip Roth, not as funny as Bruce Jay Friedman, not as tested in war and advertising as Joseph Heller, but of the '50s New York intellectual milieu in which critics like Lionel Trilling preached that literature was life, if not more important. Thus he sits and . . .

It's not there. It's been 10 years that he's been working on this novel and the world and the culture have changed and he hasn't. He's got the old guy's duty obsession going, and he sits and waits for something to come along and unlock his frozen gift.

Meanwhile, he has a pleasant enough life with his daughter Ariel (exuberant Lili Taylor), one of those eternal questors who's never quite found the right man. She yearns for a child, but the guy she loves (Adrian Lester) can't make the commitment. The man who wants to marry her doesn't want kids.

The movie bounces these two stories off each other before bringing in the complication: An ambitious grad student named Heather Wolfe (played by the luminous Lauren Ambrose of "Six Feet Under") is in love with Schiller's works, she says, and feels her attention can get him restored to prominence and possibly even productivity. But this is a New York story, so the vapors of outsize ambition and opportunity seized float through it everywhere.

Is Schiller acting out the oldest, most banal story in the book: No fool like an old fool? Or is the girl genuine, her love of his work passionate and her passion for Schiller the man real? And what does Schiller risk by reaching for what appears, for an older man, a rare flower of youthful beauty placed within his reach?

Andrew Wagner isn't a slam-bang-whang-doodle kind of director, with great highs and lows and artificial emotional thunderstorms everywhere. That's one of the things that's so brilliant about the movie -- the director's faith in the material and in his performers. Thus the movie unspools in what might be considered a dry season, with each upset or temperature change recorded mildly but never oversold. In his way, Wagner is showing as much discipline and restraint as is Schiller himself, who through it all faces that empty page each morning, tie tight, belief in the power of his story -- which may or may not finally arrive -- intense.

Among the CGI monsterfests of the holiday film season, this quiet, humorous drama of oppositional wills from different generations coming to terms with each other is one of the miracles of the season.

Starting Out in the Evening (97 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Cinema Arts Fairfax) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, profanity and brief nudity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company