VIDEO: The trailer for Starting Out in the Evening
All those Oscar prognosticators, all those Best Picture wagers, and nobody has mentioned, or even noticed, Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening. This enchanting, civilized feature, based on a sublime 1998 novel by Brian Morton, is a practically note-perfect work, with miraculous performances from Frank Langella and Lili Taylor. (The Boston Jewish Festival showed last month; it opens this Friday at the West Newton Cinema.) Langella plays aging Jewish novelist Leonard Schiller, who’s making a valiant effort to finish one last book, even though his four previous novels are out of print. Then Heather (Lauren Ambrose), an insistent, precocious, somewhat sexy Brown graduate student, intrudes on his ascetic existence.
Heather, it turns out, is mad about Schiller’s first two novels, which she devoured at the library and which altered her life. Now, she’s writing her master’s thesis on his œuvre, and she wants to conduct a string of intense in-person interviews. At the end of their first talk, she grabs for his hands and kisses them hungrily. It’s gratitude for his body of work, but it’s also Schiller’s mortal body she’s grabbing for. In the years since his wife died, he’s banished eros from his life so that he can concentrate on his work. He’s frail and halting after several heart attacks. Is this more than he can handle?
As played with meticulous tenderness by Frank Langella, Schiller is anything but an arid old fart. He’s got dignity and old-school soul, this remnant from the New York intellectual 1950s, the school of Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin. He’s courtly, reticent, a gentleman’s gentleman, a writer who wears a jacket and tie even when he’s glued for hours to his manual typewriter. That’s something to celebrate: the main character in an American movie as an unapologetic intellectual, a man whose intelligence and book learning Wagner treats with respect. As for Langella, he breathes the thinker’s life. There’s but one gesture that is, perhaps, borrowed: a coy, bashful smile and downcast eyes when he’s charmed by Heather, something you might remember from watching Emil Jannings’s Professor Rath in the grasp of Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in the 1930 film Der blaue Engel|The Blue Angel.
The other grand performance? Lili Taylor as Schiller’s pushing-40 daughter, Ariel, a one-time modern dancer now teaching pilates and yoga classes. Art has become, alas, a job. There’s more tenderness here in the lovely relationship of father and daughter: he wants her to find the right man, she wants her Prospero-aged dad to stay healthy. She does reconnect with an old boyfriend, Casey (Adrian Lester), in one of those rare interracial cinematic relationships where the interracial part is never mentioned. That’s one more good point in favor of Wagner, who, following up on his wonderful shaggy-dog road movie, The Talent Given Us (2004), is becoming a major American filmmaker.
Most tourists arrive at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris to check out ex-Door Jim Morrison’s gravesite. Heddy Honigmann, the Dutch-based documentarian of Forever, which the Museum of Fine Arts is showing six times between December 14 and 29, takes her camera everywhere else at the cemetery. She’s far more interested in having leisurely on-camera conversations with Père-Lachaise regulars — the woman who matter-of-factly arrives with water bottles and cleans the grave of Marcel Proust, or the young Japanese pianist who haunts Chopin’s burial spot. The weirdest guy is an embalmer who worships at Modigliani’s grave because the late painter’s subtle shaping of faces informs his own embalming work.