DVD Review Of Starting Out In The Evening
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/21/16
Starting Out In The Evening is a 2007 film that is a perfect evocation of the reality that not even good acting can save a terrible screenplay from becoming a bad film. There is such a dichotomy between the actual written material, how the technical staff mishandles the rest of the film (banal, pretentious scoring by Adam Gorgoni, that far too often tries to heavyhandedly lead the emotions in a scene, and far too laconic cinematography by Harlan Bosmajian that does the opposite- gives no insight into the characters nor scenes), and what is done so well by the film’s acting ensemble to rescue this godawful mess to mere badness as a film that it’s worth going into a bit of why the screenplay is so bad.
The screenplay was adapted by the film’s director, Andrew Wagner, and Fred Parnes, from a novel by Brian Morton, and is a formulaic evocation of an aging Dead White Male writer’s May-December romance with an ignorant little literary twit who has no clue about his writing canon, and the writer’s biologically clock ticking daughter’s trite desire to become pregnant by any means, so she can feel like a real woman. The writer, Leonard Schiller, is played by Frank Langella. The adoring twit, Heather Wolfe, is played by Lauren Ambrose. Lili Taylor essays Ariel, the daughter, and Adrian Lester is her on again, off again beau Casey Davis. The four lead characters are all fine. Langella is stellar, Taylor is her usual excellent self in a thanklessly banal role, and Ambrose is good as the ignorant and annoying literary social climber. But, in fact, the best acting job in the film belongs to Lester, as the man who is so in synch with Taylor’s off the rack character that the fact that he is the black half of an interracial couple is not even an issue re: their many other problems. Much of the tale of Ariel and Casey revolves around her utter selfishness and attempts to paint his adult stance in not wanting a child with this hot mess of a mama wannabe (as we had seen an earlier beau- Michael Cumpsty as Victor- tossed away because- well, he loved her and wanted to marry her) as selfish, in itself. Of course, by film’s end, he gives in, thus undermining the very positive nature of his character’s ethics.
But, that’s the sideshow. The main event is Leonard’s tale, about his being an aging writer and retired professor whose four published novels went out of print, and whose reputation is hoped to be revived by Heather’s Master’s thesis. It’s clear from the start that Heather has no adult understanding of literature and art, and seeks to ensconce herself and burgeoning career as a critical hack in the good graces of an even more ignorant and repugnant literary editor who, like much of the film, thinks that real literature is a thing of the past. Heather merely ‘likes’ Leonard’s two early schmaltzy romance books, and finds his two later ‘literary’ novels to be passionless. She fetishizes Leonard’s life, past, and marriage until she finds out about his past and seduces him (didn’t see that one coming- lol) then finds him too banal to continue on.
The actual best part of this 105 minute long film comes after Leonard has a stroke (an, again, we knew this or a heart attack was coming) and Casey helps out by taking Leonard to the doctor, and ends up bathing him after the old man is incontinent. Hell, if the whole film had been centered on the slowly developing mutual admiration that Ariel’s two men feel for each other the film may have not only been passable, but actually good. But, as it is, Starting Out In The Evening is a PC mess whose only good point is that it employed an excellent casting director. The rest of is seems like the banal crap that is spewed by an Oprah Winfrey guru, like Deepak Chopra or Marianne Williamson, or worse, Alain de Botton thin gruel sort of hipster pseudo-psychology.
How this could be seems a mystery until, well, one listens to the DVD commentary track with director Wagner. There are two ways that DVD commentaries can be atrocious. The first is where a number of people- usual on a cast and crew commentary, spend the entire film fellating each other for how spectacular their rather pedestrian performances were. Or, as in the case of Wagner’s commentary, he spends the whole track speaking in overly measured tones, worshipful of every scene and moment. It’s that bad.
Amongst the lowlights:
1) he spends a number of scenes literally either shadowing or prefiguring the exact same dialogue the character will speak or has spoken. Yes, in a scene where the twit character explains her obsession with Leonard’s early novels, the director says, ‘And then she says….’ and gives a verbatim recitation of what the actress is saying in muted tones beneath his. And there are several other scenes where he repeats this noxious behavior.
2) he states the obvious that will happen in scenes
3) he tries to claim that all the obvious and banal moments in the film are not banal by, well, saying things akin to, ‘Well, here we tried to avoid the cliché…’ even as the scene revels in its cliché.
4) he claims he strove to make the film unpredictable, even as he made it intensely predictable.
5) he says that the film does not depict a May-December romance, even as it does, and it’s obvious that it will from the film’s get go. He similarly denies the freakish selfishness of Ariel and condemns the adult choices of Casey, even as he claims to be depicting a mature outlook on life and love.
In short, Starting Out In The Evening is a film made by a rank amateur, whose own puerile outlooks and lack of skill infected just about every aspect of this production in a negative way. Thankfully, the actors almost rose above that tsunami. The film does not. Avoid it unless you want to scream at something that so disrespects its own integrity. And yours.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Spinning Image website.]
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