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Starting Out in the Evening (PG-13) **½

Lauren Ambrose is the vibrant young thing, Frank Langella her aging admirer.
Lauren Ambrose is the vibrant young thing, Frank Langella her aging admirer.

By Connie Ogle

Starting Out in the Evening is the sort of small indie drama that the Sundances of the world adore. Based on the novel by Brian Morton, the film has two outstanding and intimate performances and quietly but doggedly focuses on the single-most intimidating drama of our lives: aging and coming to terms with the dying of the light.

There’s no getting around the fact, though, that the leisurely paced film, like so many other movies, centers on the worn conceit of an older man at the twilight of his career (Frank Langella) who finds inspiration via a vibrant young woman (Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under). And while it’s natural for certain old geezers to find much joy in alabaster-skinned, auburn-tressed, adoring 20-somethings, the idea is also a cliche. Just once, why can’t one of these elderly mopes find inspiration in a Corvette or a concerto or a lobster? At least that concept would be original.

But no. Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a minor literary writer who has quietly faded into semi-obscurity in a publishing world that values quick, flashy sales of celebrity tell-alls and self-help books. Persistent grad student Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) hopes to write her thesis on Leonard and bring his books back into the limelight. Leonard is at first reluctant to submit to her questions but eventually agrees to talk with her.

Also in the mix is Ariel (Lili Taylor), Leonard’s daughter, who’s pushing 40 and desperately hoping for a baby but making some exceptionally poor choices in how to conceive one. In contrast to Heather and her father, Ariel doesn’t live the life of the mind; she’s a former dancer, now reduced to teaching yoga and Pilates, and her physicality is getting in the way of her happiness.

These characters dance around each other, engaging and turning away and engaging again, and the intimate cinematography draws us smoothly into their world. Starting Out in the Evening makes some interesting observations on the notion of art vs. commerce, but the storyline unfortunately travels the roads most expected. An awkward, somewhat icky romance blossoms. There are great changes of heart and a sudden illness. Taylor is effective as a woman struggling to take control of her life, but Ambrose’s work feels shallow in comparison.

Langella’s nuanced performance saves the film; the actor has an understated but powerful role, and he takes full advantage. The final scene, shot with remarkable grace and clarity, is a gorgeous and heartbreaking reminder of the fortitude of the human spirit.