Technical advances bring artistic opportunities. Admittedly, I've seen my share of indifferent films shot on digital video, but at the same time, DV's also given us some of the best performances in recent memory -- Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone, Patricia Clarkson in Pieces of April, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby. And, to that list, we can now add Frank Langella's performance in Starting Out in the Evening -- and those of Lauren Ambrose and Lili Taylor, as well. Langella plays Leonard Schiller -- a novelist trying to finish one more book, even though his other works are seemingly long-forgotten. But a graduate student, Heather (Ambrose), comes to call; she's working on a thesis about his earlier novels, and would like to interview Leonard for it. He's not interested -- too much work, too little time -- but something about her tenacity and insight wins him over. ...
... and perhaps it shouldn't. Ambrose's Heather is captivating and complex from the outset -- left to her own devices in Leonard's apartment she immediately starts casing the joint. She's smart and swift and manipulative -- but, in a weird way, not maliciously so. And soon she gets the measure of Leonard's life -- writing, writing and more writing, punctuated by the company of his daughter Ariel (Taylor) from time to time. Ariel's breezy and mostly together -- and in a relationship she's not crazy about, still thinking about her ex, Casey (Adrian Lester). Ariel would very much like to be a mom, but things aren't working out that way; maybe they never will.
So many motion pictures are driven by big conflict and big concepts that the subtlety and small-scale motions of Starting Out in the Evening sneak up on us; both Leonard and Ariel are so obsessed by the idea of how much time they have left that they're missing out on what's happening during the time they have now. And both of them come to a very different understanding of time and its unstoppable forward motion. ...
Director and co-writer Andrew Wagner (who, along with Fred Parnes, adapted Brian Morton's novel) has a ridiculously strong cast, and he gives them room and space to work. It pays off. Ambrose manages the difficult trick of portraying intellect in a way that's immediately apparent; Taylor's fresh and warm and complex; Lester's light and gracious and conveys big decisions through small things. But it's Langella who truly impresses, and I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that he'll get an Oscar nomination for his work here. Yes, Langella has great juicy stuff to play here -- heartbreak, regret, sorrow, anger, pride -- but there's much more to Leonard than just fireworks. It's not just any actor who can make you watch transfixed as his character picks up a pen, sighs and begins doing a line-edit of a thesis paper -- about his own work and life. And yet, Langella makes that as compelling and as vital as any shouted exchange of dialogue or tear-stained speech -- and that's just one example.
Starting Out in the Evening doesn't mis-step in depicting the complex relationship between Leonard and Heather so much as it goes down a specific path that I found hard to reconcile with the film itself. Heather and Leonard at one point do take their relationship from the realm of conversation into a more physical area, and while such things aren't unprecedented, it did feel out-of-tune with what we'd seen of her character up to that point; Heather becoming a lover to Leonard implies she's careless with either her heart or her thesis, neither of which seems like her.
And at the same time, what a pleasure it is to see acting so good that you do, in fact, form a strong opinion of what a character would or would not do based on nothing more -- or, rather, nothing less -- than the quality of performance. Ambrose, Langella and Taylor, following Wagner's direction, each get to build performances that strong, that real, that vital. It would be easy to pass by Starting Out in the Evening through any one of a number of possible snap judgments -- too New York-y, too low-budget, too digital -- but you'd also be missing out on three of the best performances of the year, regardless of the medium they're captured in.
(Starting Out in the Evening opens in limited release Nov. 23rd.)