Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mini-Review: Starting out in the Evening

Starting out in the Evening
4/5 Stars

My initial response to the highly-acclaimed Starting out in the Evening was very similar to my initial response to the even more highly-acclaimed Juno: seriously? People liked this? But it's annoying!

Unlike Juno, which annoyed me because every character spoke in the same uber-witty manner, my annoyance for Evening was mainly directed at a single character: Heather Wolfe, the ambitious graduate student who's played by Lauren Ambrose to be simultaneously precocious, pretentious, and precious. Wolfe is doing her master's thesis (which seems to be about 200 pages long...) on Leonard Schiller, a former literary giant who has faded into obscurity. Schiller is both flattered and annoyed by Wolfe's interest, and their lively debate on whether or not his last two novels forsook the worthy theme of his first two provides some of the film's best scenes.

Besides that running debate, I otherwise found the relationship between Schiller and Wolfe to be a tedious rehash of any older man-younger woman Hollywood cliches you can think of. But Starting out in the Evening is richer than those cliches, and the director, Andrew Wagner, gradually spends less and less time focusing on Schiller's relationship with Wolfe, and more on his relationship with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) and her sometimes contentious relationship with her occasional boyfriend Casey (Adrien Lester). Taylor plays her character with the right blend of confidence and frustration throughout the film, and the script allows Casey to develop from the bad stereotype he appears to be into a rich and interesting character.

In short, I was not impressed with Lauren Ambrose or her character, but that fault eventually falls away as the film slowly widens its scope to include Ariel and Casey. In the end, although the grad student stuff feels phony, Starting out in the Evening seems right on difficult subjects ranging from literature to romantic love to the strains of aging on familial. It's not perfect, and Langella's performance as Schiller isn't as earth-shattering as others would have you to believe, but it ends up both true and touching, which is more than enough for me.

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