It’s almost impossible not to think of last year’s “Venus” when you’re watching “Starting Out in the Evening.” Both films are about relationships between elderly, largely forgotten artists (there an actor, here a novelist) and much younger women. And both feature remarkable performances by distinguished veterans—Peter O’Toole on the one hand, Frank Langella on the other.
But it would be unwise to push the comparisons too far. In the earlier film the actor, played with his customary expansiveness by O’Toole, was the pursuer, and the girl (Jodie Whittaker) treats his attentions with a sort of mercenary callousness. Here the novelist, Leonard Schiller, is a extremely reserved, formal fellow, and Heather Wolfe an aggressive graduate student who approaches him for help on a thesis she’s writing about him and eventually comes on to him—an approach he reacts to with a mixture of amazement, fear and desire. And while in “Venus” the unlikely couple was surrounded by several of the man’s cantankerous old chums, here the only other figures of note are the writer’s daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), and her old boyfriend Casey(Adrian Lester), with whom she has a strained relationship because of her desperate desire to have a child before her biological clock runs out and his unwillingness to do so.
The script by Andrew Wagner and Fred Parnes, based on a novel by Brian Morton, is intelligently wrought, and Wagner’s direction is sensitive and low-keyed (rather a far cry from his far more extrovert work with the members of his own family in “The Talent Given Us”). Lester offers a nice turn as the boyfriend, especially in the latter stages, when Casey and the old man finally reach an understanding. And Ambrose and Taylor both have their moments, though each tends to overstatement on occasion.
That’s made even clearer than it might be otherwise because they’re playing against Langella, who give an almost unnaturally subdued performance as the genteel, reticent and latterly unproductive Schiller. The author is depicted as emotionally withdrawn since his wife’s death and physically cautious following a mild heart attack, and Langella captures his air of dignity and vulnerability with quiet authority. It’s a finely shaded performance as a man who realizes his time is short and his inspiration and energy fading.
And it’s the main reason to check out “Starting Out in the Evening,” a gently affecting little film that portrays the fragility of life, love and art with sympathy and taste. Harlan Bosmajian’s smooth cinematography, Carol Strober’s realistically upscale production design and Dara Wishingrad’s skillful art direction are genuine virtues that complement the strengths of Walker’s writing and direction, and Adam Gorgoni’s music is unobtrusive.
But ultimately it’s Langella’s contribution that anchors the film, and does so solidly. One might be tempted to refer to it as a career-capping performance, except that it leaves you hoping there will be much more to come.