I’m not a film expert or critic, just an enthusiastic moviegoer. With that caveat, I’d like to say that Starting Out in the Evening is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.
Frank Langella, who plays the starring role of an aging writer with a faltering reputation, is superb. He’s dignified, highly intelligent and touching; even when he’s still and silent, you can feel his loneliness and longing.
Lauren Ambrose, who played Claire in Six Feet Under on HBO, appears as the writer’s greatest devotee who’s writing her master’s thesis on his work.
Lili Taylor plays the writer’s daughter. Like Ambrose, she’s an alumna of Six Feet Under, starring as Nate’s whiny, downtrodden, New Age wife, Lisa. Like half the audience, I was relieved when the series killed her off, but then she kept reappearing in dreamy, gauzy postlife scenarios, still whining and nagging, in a spiritual kind of way. No wonder that series finally went off the air. If they had to bring Lisa back, why couldn’t she have just been reincarnated as a bug that hit somebody’s windshield with a big splat? Just a thought.
But back to Starting Out in the Evening (which has to be one of the worst movie titles I’ve heard — and promptly forgotten, only to remember and forget again — in a long time. Something a bit pithier and punchier would have been better). It’s peopled with memorable, nuanced characters, particularly Langella and Ambrose, who surprise you at every turn. Young and pretty, Ambrose is also smart and passionate about literature; she isn’t the progeny of All About Eve or merely the ambitious seductress you keep expecting her to be. She’s something more complicated and puzzling.
In his own quiet and repressed role, Langella is amazing. It must be tough to portray a writer with an active intellect and a sober exterior. Much easier to be Fitzgerald or Hemingway, boozing it up, jumping into fountains or strange beds, shooting big game.
Can you separate an artist from his work? What right does a scholar possess to know about an artist’s life? Who owns a body of work — an artist or his public? What do youth and age need each other for, what do they take from each other? Who exploits whom? Are you sure?
In a year of movies drenched in blood and violence, Starting Out in the Evening is quiet and thoughtful and probing. It’s strangest of all to me that one character’s slapping another, which happens close to the end of the movie, was one of the most provocative and shocking moments I’ve seen at the theater in a long time. When is the last time you saw anyone slapped? When is the last time you cared?